Astronauts Have a Hard Time Sleeping in Space


Astronauts have a hard time sleeping during space flights and are often sleep deprived. This is recognized as a major problem for the space program because sleep deprivation is known to be associated with health problems and inattentiveness. Inattentiveness, of course, can be the source of horrific troubles on the International Space Station.

A discussion has been started on astronaut sleep deprivation as a result of a 10-year study carried out by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The researchers are with the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Harvard Medical School and also with the University of Colorado. In the study, astronauts who flew in the space shuttle and astronauts who were stationed on the International Space Station kept records of their time spent sleeping and also the medications they were taking. A total of 85 astronauts participated in the study. Another aspect of the study was to keep records of sleep habits during training before departing on a mission to space. Data from 4,000 nights were logged.

The report on the study was published in the journal Lancet Neurology. The results from the study showed that only a small percentage of the times sleeping lasted seven hours or longer. This is not considered to be enough sleep and the astronauts are actually supposed to have an eight-and-a-half hour sleep session. The results also showed that, during training, the average amount of time sleeping was only six-and-a-half hours per night. These statistics indicated that the astronauts were considered to be sleep deprived.

The results from the study also showed that astronauts were prone to taking sleeping pills to try to get a restful sleep. Sleeping pills were used on more than 52 percent of the nights during missions. This is considered to be a problem while on a space flight because the astronauts may have difficulty waking up in the case of an emergency.

It is recognized that sleeping in space may be difficult because of the weightlessness factor and also the problem of noises and lights that can disturb sleep. Viewing images of how astronauts sleep while on the International Space Station makes it very clear that they are not sleeping on a wonderfully designed mattress in between newly washed fresh smelling sheets and that comfortable moments are going to be few and far between. Turning over and scrunching up a pillow to get one’s head position just right is not possible in their current sleeping arrangements.

The researchers who carried out the study have now clarified and presented the issue and the expectation is that changes will be made so that astronauts will have better designed sleeping arrangements in the future. An important consideration for the future is how astronauts are going to sleep when on a mission to Mars. A mission to Mars by humans is definitely being developed, with international efforts, and the targeted date is the year 2030. By that time, astronauts should not have such a hard time.

By Margaret Lutze

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