Lessons learned from Mars 520-day simulated missions

HOUSTON – (Jan. 7, 2012) – In a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania revealed important findings from an international project that simulated a 520-day human mission to Mars.

The high-fidelity mission was developed by the Institute for Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences and involved an international crew of six, who were confined in a spacecraft-like facility in Moscow.

“We discovered that crew members showed a decrease in waking movement and light exposure and an increase in sleep and rest times as the mission progressed. The majority of crew members also experienced one or more disturbances of sleep quality, vigilance deficits or altered sleep-wake periodicity and timing,” said Dr. Jeffrey P. Sutton, professor and director of the Center for Space Medicine at BCM and senior author of the paper.

Researchers measured crew members by having them wear watches that monitored their movement, light exposure and estimated sleep. Computer-based neurobehavioral assessments were also performed throughout the 17 months of mission confinement.

“The results show us that there is differential vulnerability to sleep-wake changes during prolonged isolation missions and a need to ensure maintenance of circadian entrainment and behavior,” said Sutton, who is also president and CEO of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, of which BCM is the lead institution.

“We need to learn from the results of this study and have crews transit in spacecraft and live in surface habitats that mimic aspects of Earth’s geophysical cycle,” stated Dr. David F. Dinges, Team Leader of the NSBRI Neurobehavioral and Psychosocial Factors Team and co-lead author of the paper.

Sutton and colleagues at BCM and NSBRI facilitated the groundwork and implemented this important international collaborative study, which has implications for human space exploration as well as life on Earth.

Dipali Pathak