Next in NASA’s path to Mars: Overcoming astronauts’ cognitive and mental health challenges

– Illus­tra­tion by Zoë Van Dijk

Space Between the Ears (Cere­brum):

A few short months ago, news pro­grams around the globe showed NASA engi­neers and sci­en­tists cel­e­brat­ing as a robot named Per­se­ver­ance suc­cess­ful­ly land­ed on the sur­face of Mars. The mis­sion: cap­ture and share images and audio that have nev­er been seen or heard before. As impressed as most observers were of this major mile­stone, many couldn’t help but won­der when we might be ready to some­day send humans. While it seems the stuff of sci­ence fic­tion and almost incon­ceiv­able, the answer—according to recent NASA planning—is before the end of the 2030s, less than two decades away.

There are still many obsta­cles to accom­plish­ing such a feat, many of which have to do with over­com­ing cog­ni­tive and men­tal health chal­lenges that would impact a crew: long-term iso­la­tion, eye­sight impair­ment, and psy­cho­log­i­cal effects from the stress of dan­ger and what could amount to life-or-death deci­sions. For a mis­sion to suc­ceed, high men­tal and cog­ni­tive func­tion would be absolute­ly crit­i­cal; astro­nauts would be called on to per­form demand­ing tasks in a demand­ing envi­ron­ment. Los­ing 20 IQ points halfway to Mars is not an option … Stress—an emo­tion­al or men­tal state result­ing from tense or over­whelm­ing circumstances—and the body’s response to it, which involves mul­ti­ple sys­tems, from metab­o­lism to mus­cles to memory—may be the chief chal­lenge that astro­nauts face. Space­flight is full of stres­sors, many of which can have an impact on brain func­tion, cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, and men­tal capac­i­ties. Sev­er­al changes in brain struc­ture and func­tion have been observed [in astro­nauts after space­flight]. The full impli­ca­tions of these changes for health and per­for­mance are not yet known, but any adverse con­se­quences will be increas­ing­ly impor­tant as space­flights become longer and more ambi­tious (such as a three-year mis­sion to Mars). Keep read­ing excel­lent arti­cle HERE

NASA’s “path to Mars” planning:

Astro­nauts Will Face Many Haz­ards on a Jour­ney to Mars (

NASA isn’t plan­ning to go straight to Mars. The agency aims to land two astro­nauts near the lunar south pole by 2024, then estab­lish a long-term, sus­tain­able pres­ence on and around the moon short­ly thereafter.

Indeed, the main goal of these activ­i­ties, which NASA will con­duct via a pro­gram called Artemis, is to learn the skills and tech­niques need­ed to send astro­nauts to Mars, agency offi­cials have said.

One of Artemis’ key pieces of infra­struc­ture is a small moon-orbit­ing space sta­tion called the Gate­way, which will serve as a hub for sur­face activ­i­ties. For exam­ple, lan­ders, both robot­ic and crewed, will descend toward the lunar sur­face from Gate­way, and astro­nauts aboard the out­post will like­ly oper­ate rovers from up there as well, NASA offi­cials have said.

A great deal of research will be con­duct­ed on Gate­way as well, and much of it will inves­ti­gate astro­nauts’ health and per­for­mance in a true deep-space envi­ron­ment. Fog­a­r­ty men­tioned one research strat­e­gy that may be par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful to plan­ners map­ping out the path to Mars — study­ing small sam­ples of human tis­sue aboard the moon-orbit­ing outpost.

News in Context:

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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