'Balancing' the one-year mission risks

Sep 30, 2013 by Andrea Dunn, Laurie Abadie
'Balancing' the 1-year mission risks
The Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft with Expedition 36 Commander Pavel Vinogradov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos and Flight Engineer Chris Cassidy of NASA aboard, lands in a remote area near Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, on Sept. 11, 2013. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

If you've ever stumbled out of bed in the middle of the night, fallen out of a yoga pose or had trouble "finding your legs" after hopping off a rollercoaster or a boat, then you know getting your balance can be challenging. This is even truer for astronauts who have just returned from extended spaceflight in microgravity.

Spaceflight causes changes in physiological systems that can affect things like balance, strength, vision and endurance. Although NASA scientists have studied how these changes impact astronaut performance a few days after returning to Earth, a new test promises to provide scientists with data about these changes just moments after crew members exit the spacecraft. This information is increasingly important as NASA moves closer to sending an astronaut to the International Space Station for one year and, eventually, to asteroids and Mars.

An ongoing research study called the Functional Task Test allows scientists to measure the changes in astronaut performance after spaceflight. The test documents astronaut responses to a set of physical challenges that represent mission-critical tasks and measures changes in physiological function to help scientists objectively assess crew functional capabilities immediately after landing and identify key factors that contribute to reductions in performance. These assessments will lead to better human factors designs that will aid astronauts landing in remote locations such as Mars. They will also help scientists develop countermeasures to offset the deficits that would otherwise pose a risk to crew members attempting to perform mission-critical tasks on long-duration missions.

"Exploration-class missions beyond low-Earth orbit are challenging the human experience on every level," says John Charles, Ph.D., chief of the International Science Office in NASA's Human Research Program. "We are evaluating risks associated with travel to Mars because they encompass the range of risks that astronauts are likely to encounter during other missions leading up to the Mars mission."

NASA has not routinely gathered data immediately after landing on long-duration missions – until now.

According to Senior Research Scientist Jacob Bloomberg, Ph.D., the most profound deficits in the human body occur immediately after landing. "This is important because landing is the most operationally significant period during missions," says Bloomberg. "Testing immediately after landing allows us to conduct an operational assessment of capabilities during a time when astronauts need to land and leave the vehicle."

To that end, investigators from the Human Research Program and the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Biomedical Problems are conducting a series of pilot field tests. The first of these tests occurred on Sept. 11 when three astronauts returned to Earth after 166 days aboard the space station.

"Conducting tests after six-month missions is helping us prepare for landing on Mars," said Charles. "The transit to Mars is four to seven months, so six-month missions provide the best model for going to Mars. The pilot is the prime venue for gathering this kind of information."

Astronauts performed up to three tasks during the pilot field test: sit-to-stand, which tests the ability of astronauts to exit the spacecraft from a seated position; recovery from a simulated fall; and a tandem heel-to-toe walk test, a test of dynamic balance control and the ability to walk without falling. Performing these activities after a rollercoaster ride might be difficult; after six months in space they are incredibly challenging.

"These tasks were chosen because of their increasing level of difficulty," says Bloomberg. "We start with the basic tasks like standing and increase the level of difficulty to walking – testing dynamic balance."

According to Mill Reschke, Ph.D., chief scientist for NASA Neuroscience, these tests tie to any planetary expedition with long-duration flight where there is deconditioning of physiological and sensorimotor systems. Sensorimotor function describes how the brain interprets and integrates sensory information to produce appropriate motor output.

"It's important to understand the changes that are occurring and how long they last," says Reschke. "The astronauts must exit the capsule at some point and we need to know when it is safe to do so."

Landing-site testing on crew members Chris Cassidy of NASA and Alexander Misurkin of the Russian Federal Space Agency occurred inside a medical tent to accommodate crew member privacy.

"This pilot field test is a demonstration, a proof of concept," says Charles. "We are going through the paces to see what's possible so we can have the best full-up test possible in 2016 for the one-year mission return."

This investigation, which is a subset of tasks performed in the functional task test, is a precursor to the field test NASA plans to begin in 2014 in preparation for the one-year mission landing in 2016.

The field test will include an expanded set of tests including those used in the pilot field test and others like a push test, which looks at whether crew members can maintain balance in an upright position while being gently but persistently forced backwards. A hand/eye coordination test will also take place. Scientists will assess things like intra-ocular pressure, intra-cranial pressure and muscle tone, as well.

This investigation was coordinated by the Multilateral Human Research Panel for Exploration, a working group representing all of the International Space Station partner space agencies to increase the scientific return from space station experiments through multinational cooperation.

"The field test is a joint investigation with our colleagues from the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow," says Bloomberg. "It offers an opportunity for a unique, collaborative study."

Dr. Inessa Kozlovskaya, the institute's lead investigator, brings decades of experience and knowledge to this joint U.S.-Russian investigation. She and her colleague Dr. Elena Tomilovskaya have overseen the Russian implementation of the investigation including experiment team training in Russia, transportation to the landing site and data collection in the field.

Scientists already know there is great variation in individual capabilities following flight. According to Reschke, they can use these variations to design the appropriate countermeasures that may put crew members on equal footing and reduce risk.

This research has Earth-based implications as well. Data can be used to design interventions and rehabilitation programs for subsets of the population like the elderly who experience changes in multiple physiological systems that lead to a decline in functional performance and increased risk of falling.

In this way, the benefits of NASA research continue to provide balance to humans in space and on Earth.

Explore further: Soyuz capsule returns from space station

Provided by NASA/Johnson Space Center

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Soyuz capsule returns from space station

Sep 11, 2013

A Soyuz capsule carrying three astronauts touched down to Earth early on Wednesday morning after undocking from the International Space Station following 166 days in space.

NASA, US Navy to test space capsule recovery (Update)

Aug 15, 2013

The U.S. Navy and NASA are testing out how they'll recover astronauts once they splash down in the ocean following future missions to deep space, something a Navy crew hasn't had to do in nearly 40 years.

Recommended for you

Vegetables on Mars within ten years?

21 hours ago

The soil on Mars may be suitable for cultivating food crops – this is the prognosis of a study by plant ecologist Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen UR. This would prove highly practical if we ever decide to ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

22 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

Meteorite studies suggest hidden water on Mars

23 hours ago

Geochemical calculations by researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology to determine how the water content of Mars has changed over the past 4.5 billion years suggest as yet unidentified reservoirs of water ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Feldagast
1 / 5 (2) Sep 30, 2013
I wonder if something a simple as a counterbalanced sling would help with the effects caused by weightlessness. I cot or bed with a adjustable counterbalance so that it would be neutral on any effects of the spacecraft it was installed on, could provide some amount of weight to counteract the effects of being in space for a very long time.
Q-Star
not rated yet Sep 30, 2013
Am I the only surprised that this sort of testing and data collection hasn't been a routine part of every NASA mission? They should have forty plus years of data by now. It should be a part of debriefing at the end of all manned spaceflights. It would be one of the least expensive type of studies they could do.
GSwift7
not rated yet Oct 01, 2013
Am I the only surprised that this sort of testing and data collection hasn't been a routine part of every NASA mission? They should have forty plus years of data by now. It should be a part of debriefing at the end of all manned spaceflights. It would be one of the least expensive type of studies they could do


It has been done before, just not 'immediately' after landing. There have always been a whole list of tests they do when astronaughts return from missions, and you can't do all of them at once.

If I understand this correctly, they want to know if such a long flight will impair the crew's ability to land the spaceship and do their job, as well as how to test for people who might be unusually impaired in such a situation (as if there aren't enough screening tests for astronaughts already!!).

I wonder if this is something you can train for? Perhaps people respond better after multiple long missions? The body/mind can be taught some amazing pattern responses.

More news stories

ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

First direct observations of excitons in motion achieved

A quasiparticle called an exciton—responsible for the transfer of energy within devices such as solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductor circuits—has been understood theoretically for decades. But exciton movement within ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Tech giants look to skies to spread Internet

The shortest path to the Internet for some remote corners of the world may be through the skies. That is the message from US tech giants seeking to spread the online gospel to hard-to-reach regions.