Stressed? Just Imagine Going to Mars

Workshop to explore loss of privacy, use of digital technologies in space.

Posted Feb 05, 2019

The first astronauts needed the Right Stuff as they launched into Earth orbit. A new generation of astronauts will need much more as they travel to the Red Planet, facing unprecedented stresses on their much longer missions. This week researchers will gather in Cambridge, Massachusetts to develop concrete ways to design spacecraft to be hospitable environments. “Future space missions take crew members further and longer from the comforts of Earth in space flight vehicles that are relatively smaller compared to the International Space Station. These isolation and confinement hazards create behavioral health and performance risks to the crew that we want to address in a meaningful way with habitable vehicle design,” said Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), which is sponsoring the meeting Spaces in Space: Optimizing Behavioral Health and Cognitive Performance in Confined Environments. The workshop, called Space2 for short, will take place February 6-7, 2019 at the MIT Media Lab, which is also sponsoring the event. Sessions will be freely available by livestream for anyone who registers.

Unlike past meetings that have emphasized engineering, Space2 will look at spaceship design from multiple disciplinary perspectives. “A large number of decisions that NASA makes are driven by engineering requirements. This is fine when you are sending robotic probes to Mars or humans to Low Earth Orbit. If you run out of supplies, you can send them up. If the crew gets sick, you can return them immediately to Earth. But NASA is going to put human boot-prints on Mars,” Donoviel told Psychology Today. “When you plan to send humans in a very confined spacecraft for 1,000 days under conditions of radiation and microgravity without any possibility of resupply or immediate evacuation, your requirements better be driven by more than engineering consideration.”

Future Innovations

Future space missions will rely on robotics, artificial intelligence, and digital technologies in ways never considered in the past, and the designers of spacecraft need to anticipate this revolution. “As our terrestrial environments are becoming intelligent and adaptive, our space environments will follow. Humans are becoming seamlessly extended on Earth via their connection to digital technology – this will be even more important in space,” said Joseph Paradiso, the Alexander W. Dreyfoos (1954) Professor in Media Arts and Sciences, who will be speaking at Space2. “If humans are to spend more time in space-based environments, we need to not only make these more functional, but also make them more amenable to human habitation.”

Ted Smith, deputy director of the University of Louisville Envirome Institute and a member of the TRISH Scientific Advisory Board, agrees. “A decade ago, we did not have the kinds of virtual and augmented sensory environment that we have today,” he told Psychology Today. “Similarly, our ability to create believable synthetic social agents is also a young and promising field that directly relates.”

“My role as the director of TRISH is setting the vision for the workshop, inspiring the organizing committee, and providing the resources to make it possible,” Donoviel said. “During the workshop, I hope to set the problem clearly and facilitate the generation of novel, innovative ideas that will result in research proposals that I then get to fund.” She noted that the workshop is the “brainchild” of Smith, whose interest arose from his own work that “demonstrated how trees make people healthier.”

Baylor College of Medicine
Dorit Donoviel, PhD, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH).
Source: Baylor College of Medicine

Privacy in Space … or Not

The cramped environment of a Mars-bound spacecraft will deny astronauts of some of the basic features they’ve come to expect in comfortable living quarters. “Privacy is a concern. There may not be a bathroom on the vehicle going to Mars. Only a toilet will be provided,” Donoviel explained. “In response to this possibility, one of the ISS [International Space Station] crew quipped, ‘Imagine having to shave standing at the public urinal at the bathroom at the airport.’ What is meaningful privacy? Do you really need a physical barrier? What about having to smell your crewmates who are unable to shower for 1,000 days?”

The competing demands are clear. A mission that is feasible from an engineering standpoint needs to keep the size and weight of the spacecraft to a minimum, with the vessel meeting the crew’s basic material needs. But in addition, the health and well-being of astronauts calls for a hospitable environment. It will be a challenge to provide both. “Privacy even during sleep or bathroom activities may be difficult to achieve,” said Donoviel. “The interior of the spacecraft will be designed based on materials that are resistant to growth of microbes and based on other practical matters.”

Inside the Tin Can

As planning proceeds to travel to Mars, NASA collaborates with other organizations to conduct the work needed to prepare for the mission. “The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) is partnered with NASA to think ‘outside the box,’ or in this case, ‘inside the tin can,’ and consider new ways to ameliorate the emotional pressures of a confined, unvarying space and team on such a long mission of 1,000 days,” Donoviel explained. “The Space2 workshop is unusual because it will bring together problem solvers that typically do not meet. For example, furniture company researchers from Steelcase, those studying smells and sounds and optimizing health and performance, and VR game designers. The applications of the workshop go beyond space travel, since confined environments can be found in many Fortune 500 companies, schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.”

BRASH Funding

Unlike some academic conferences that advance a field through face-to-face discussion as a goal in itself, Space2 aids in the funding of research needed to support astronauts on long-duration missions. In its most concrete form, this will happen through grants awarded by the Biomedical Research Advances for Space Health (BRASH) program, which TRISH is funding. “TRISH organized the workshop as a means to bring together experts and ideas in a forum to share and collaborate and possibly submit creative ideas to the BRASH solicitation,” Donoviel explained. The first stage of submitting a proposal through this grant program is called Step-1. “We timed it so that the Step-1 proposals (short white papers) are due three weeks after the workshop to give folks time. We are also livestreaming the workshop for those unable to attend in person but are interested in the materials presented for the purposes of composing a Step-1 proposal,” she added.

Originally Step-1 proposals were due on Valentine’s Day, February 14. In the midst of the partial government shutdown, this was extended to March 7. “The extension of the submission deadline by a few weeks allowed proposers who were affected by the partial government shutdown to prepare and submit a proposal as they were not allowed to work,” Donoviel said.

How will the organizers know whether the workshop was successful? “I hope we will leave with an appreciation for all the possibilities of sight, sound, smell, plants, digital therapies as ways of improving behavioral health in deep space,” said Smith. “I hope TRISH supports further applied research in this area to turn these concepts into specific solutions not only for space but for Earth.”

In the view of TRISH director Donoviel, “Our hope for the Spaces in Space workshop is a barrage of wonderfully creative and feasible proposals submitted to TRISH for funding. We want to see many scientifically-sound project plans that demonstrate how a particular adjustment to an interior environment that could be implemented inside a spacecraft improve mood, teamwork, or other health and performance metrics. We plan to fund several of these with the hope of providing real solutions to NASA for consideration.”