Because sending a spacecraft to Mars wasn’t tough enough to begin with, now potential astronauts have another problem to contend with: lack of sleep. The results of a new study show that, over the course of the 17-month voyage to the Red Planet, sleep issues could throw the space travelers into a lethargic state that resembles bears preparing for winter hibernation.
The experiment, performed and bankrolled by space agencies in Russia and Europe, placed six volunteers (well-compensated volunteers) inside a cramped faux-spaceship. What researchers found was that the men went into a “prolonged funk,” and five of the six had significant problems sleeping. This led to issues like depression, self-isolation, and extended periods of inactivity, avoiding the daily exercise that will be even more vital to crews in zero gravity. Without these calisthenics routines, the near-weightless environment can have a large impact on bone, muscle, and other body systems.
Author David Dinges, a sleep specialist a the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said, “This looks like something you see in birds in the winter.”
By the end of the mission, one volunteer was sleeping, on average, 30 minutes less than he was at the beginning. This discrepancy affected everything about how he went about his day. These findings are especially concerning because the astronauts need focus and energy to perform the very specific, detail-oriented tasks on the spacecraft.
Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former American astronaut who holds the U.S. record for spending 215 days in the space station, had similar sleep issues. The lack of gravity made it difficult for him to fall back asleep, and he would sometimes nod off in the middle of his day. On occasion he would drift off and wake up in another part of the station.
Lopez-Alegria said, “It happened more than once, but I never thought it was a big deal. I thought it was amusing in a way.”
Combing over the diaries of NASA astronauts reveals that sleep has been a recurring issue on long-term space missions. Trouble falling and staying asleep appear common, and there are multiple instances of astronauts falling asleep on the job. One even compares it to being hungover after a night of partying. Not exactly the best circumstances for someone piloting a little tin can in an environment where a single mistake can be disastrous.
Dignes said the weariness might also stem from other factors, or a combination. Stuffed into cramped living conditions, being watched by cameras, isolated from your family, and a lack of privacy could all contribute to the overall stupor. Regardless of the precise cause, this is an issue that will have to be addressed before missions can be sent to Mars, as President Obama has proposed by as early as the mid-2030s.