A Risk that cannot be ignored
One of the most significant health risks facing humankind is not a physical danger but an emotional one. It’s likely you have all experienced this risk at some point in your life. The risk is loneliness. While it is prevalent in our societies on Earth, nowhere is loneliness more profound than in Space.
Impaired cognitive functioning
Over the past decade researchers have discovered how significant loneliness is and its danger to our overall health. Whether an individual is alone or feels lonely, the effect is the same: Loneliness hurts. Additional feelings often accompany it. Anxiety or depression may be stressful on cognitive functioning, interfering with memory or learning.
The expression, ‘he died of a broken heart,’ can be very real as well. Research has found that loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke. Simply put: Human beings are not wired for feeling or being alone. This problem however, is not just for the earthbound, but is a risk for the space bound.
Preparing for deep space
Currently, the International Space Station is home to a contingent of six astronauts, many of whom are now spending about six months or longer orbiting 248 miles above the planet–not far above earth, but very far from home while orbiting for a long time. While aboard the station astronauts rely on the companionship of crewmates but are still separated from the support of emotional connections of close family and friends back on Earth.
Consider our national space goals of the near future: to establish a presence on the moon by the early 2020’s and human spaceflight to Mars in the mid 2030’s. These goals mean that humans will be away from our home planet longer than ever–almost three years for a round-trip to Mars. Currently when staying in touch with home, astronauts can occasionally make a call with seconds of delay, but for flights at distances and durations of the future, communications could be disrupted by significant delays in real-time communication of up to 24 minutes. The vision of home will take on a new perspective, one no human has yet experienced and can only be imagined: instead of earth at their feel 248 miles below, our blue dot shrinks as the flight continues onward and deeper into space. Resupply missions to offer care packages may be rare if at all. While their journey will be awe-inspiring, it will likely be incredibly isolating too.
A countermeasure that connects them
NASA is seeking new ways to support connections between astronauts and their friends and family on long missions. The research I am conducting, as a graduate student, is leading to an innovation to help this connection. The project is a countermeasure, called Sunspot™, and will bring together human factors needs and technology. This new development will use a robotic (AI) technology in a new way. I look forward to sharing more details of Sunspot with you soon.
For space – for society
It is my hope that the work I will be sharing with you in the months to come will provide support, continuity, and empathy between astronauts and those who are dear to them during long space flights. It will possibly help with the growing problem of isolation in our society.