Source: Healio Interview

Disclosures: Vessey is employed by NASA.
June 25, 2020
3 min read

NASA seeks volunteers to study social isolation, confinement

Source: Healio Interview

Disclosures: Vessey is employed by NASA.
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NASA recently announced that it will select a handful of volunteers this fall for an 8-month study that examines the physiological and psychological effects of social isolation and confinement that could occur on trips to the moon and Mars.

Space travel expands the definition of “social distancing” beyond the meaning commonly associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Brandon Vessey, PhD, deputy element scientist for flight analogs at NASA, told Healio Primary Care.

Astronaut travelling in space
NASA is seeking volunteers for the second of three studies examining the physiological and psychological effects of social isolation and confinement that could occur during space travel. Photo Source: Adobe Stock

“Even if friends and family can talk with a space traveler, it is from a much longer distance and they likely are not physically seeing each other,” he said. “The effects of social isolation and physical confinement can affect emotions and cognitive performance.”

Brandon Vessey
Brandon Vessey

Vessey provided additional details on the study, how the findings could impact clinical practice and more.

Q: What do you hope to find out with the new study?

A: We will be looking closely at how social isolation and confinement impact multicultural crews over time, how these crews adapt to the different challenges and the general effects of operating autonomously as a team. This will help inform NASA practices for developing and training multicultural teams for future space exploration missions.

The study that we are currently recruiting for is 8 months long. It will consist of six volunteers living in isolation in a 2,100-square foot Moscow facility that has four modules and contains a variety of living and working spaces.

We did a similar study for 4 months in 2019 and will do another similar study that will be 12 months long in a few years. After the last study concludes, we will compare results from the different studies to see if we can parse out the effects of the actual time exposure. Some of the volunteers for these studies have been or will be recruited from Russia and will be participating alongside the volunteers recruited from the United States.

Q: Who would be an ideal candidate for this study?

A: We are looking for volunteers who are similar to our astronauts corps so that our findings are more likely to be comparable to spaceflight. . Therefore, we are looking for U.S. citizens, between 30 and 55 years of age, in good physical health and no more than 180 cm tall.

We prefer that candidates have a graduate degree or military officer training, although a bachelor's degree is acceptable if they have some additional education or professional experience to bolster that. They also must have at least an intermediate proficiency in both spoken and written English and Russian because the actual operational language of the mission itself is Russian. Applicants of the 4-month study who were not chosen are encouraged to apply again. Those not chosen for either the 4-month or the 8-month study are also encouraged to apply for the 12-month study next year.

Q: How could the study findings potentially impact clinical practice?

The behavioral and social findings from the NASA studies could possibly assist someone working with a multicultural team. Or there could be instances where physicians learn to provide psychological or medical support to a patient in a remote location.

In the past, we have also seen information flow from the clinical practice to NASA. I would anticipate this two-way pattern of sharing information to come out of these new studies as well.

Q: What do we already know about how space travel impacts a person’s health?

A: The Human Research Program at NASA focuses on five hazards of spaceflight: radiation; isolation and confinement; distance from Earth; gravity or the lack thereof; and hostile/closed environment. Collectively, we call these hazards RIDGE.

A person traveling in space is exposed to around 10 times more radiation exposure than he or she would naturally get on Earth. As a result, the human body experiences both acute and potential long-term effects, including increased cancer risk.

The isolation and confinement come from the lack of instant, easy access that a space traveler has to friends and family when traveling to Mars or the moon or to their surfaces. Space travelers are confined inside a vehicle or habitat, in a much smaller space than most folks are typically used to being inside of, for long periods of time. We commonly see impacts on team cohesion, morale, interpersonal friction and sleep, due to disruptions of circadian rhythm since the normal day-night cycle ceases to exist while in space without intervention.

In terms of distance from Earth, space travel has caused changes in gut bacteria and immune systems and increased allergic reactions. We also know that space travelers need to function autonomously because of communication delays that occur when traveling very far away from Earth. For example, when we get to Mars, if one says, “Hello” to someone on Earth, there'll be up to a 20-minute one-way communication delay, meaning it could be 40 minutes before the person on Mars hears a response.

The lack of gravity can cause, over the long term, a loss of bone density and muscle strength. Short term, many have experienced sensory motor adaptations, such as challenges with balance and coordination. We have also seen space travelers who have experienced fluid shifts toward the head, which is potentially associated with vision problems.