Spending three years in an enclosed spacecraft with less than a handful of companions is a daunting task — not just physically but psychologically. However, that will be the reality for the crew going to Mars, a trip which is slated for some time in the next two decades.
“These people who travel with a small crew and small habitable body [face] psychological stress of that confinement and isolation from everything you ever knew back on Earth, and the lack of access to other environments,” Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientist at the NASA Human Research Program, said at the Space Health Innovation Conference on Saturday.
Augmented and virtual reality continuously resurfaced at the conference as a way to address astronauts' mental wellbeing during the three-year journey to Mars. For instance, Fogarty mentioned that with such tight quarters it’s hard to get away from crew members who you’ve had a disagreement with, but some type of alternative reality could help alleviate that stress.
“Isolation and confinement — I mentioned sensory enrichment. What does that mean for VR and AR, and is whatever is going to come along the way [going] to help people feel enriched in a meaningful way? Conflict resolution [among] the crew — if you have a disagreement with someone and you need to cool off, you get to walk away from each other and cool off,” Fogarty said.
In addition to the lack of space, the space shuttle is often fairly drab, which could have a psychological impact over time.
“Maybe we need full immersion, ... maybe we need more than what we’ve seen on the space station, where we have a lot of monotone colors where everything is loaded with equipment,” Kristin Fabre, the senior innovation scientist at the organization, told MobiHealthNews. “Do we need something a little more advanced than that for keeping our crew safe and sane on the way to Mars?”
But the technologies could be used for more than just keeping astronauts calm and stable. Stakeholders have proposed that these tools could help the crew with their higher-level cognitive functions. Dr. Adam Gazzaley, cofounder of digital therapeutics startup Akilli Interactive Labs and executive director of the University of California, San Francisco's Neuroscape lab, has been working on combining rhythm and VR into a game that could stimulate brain activity.
“Our hypothesis is that if we can make you more rhythmic, we will improve multiple aspects of brain function. Our brain relies on anticipation and precise timing, which are core ingredients of rhythms,” he said. “So, as we play this closed-loop video game, the software is still recording in real-time your precision, accuracy and consistencies, and based upon that upgrades the rhythms.”
While the tools have been tested here on Earth, Gazzaley said that this system could be effective for implementation during space travel.
However, technologies that can be employed for more than behavioral health will be particularly valuable.
“In addition to just mood, we need to think about what is the physiological impact. What does the radiation do to cognitive and behavioral function, what does it do to the immune function,” Fabre said. “So, when we are looking at a lot of these technologies to gauge cognitive or behavioral wellbeing, we would also like to have a physiological element to it as well. So, tying in monitoring or diagnosing to what is happening on the physiological level.”