Antarctica Provides ICE to Study Behavior Effects in Astronauts

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Christina Koch in Antarctica

NASA Astronaut Christina Koch takes a frozen selfie at the South Pole on the continent of Antarctica.
Credits: Christina Koch

A trip to the Red Planet begins long in advance of liftoff. NASA’s journey to Mars includes preparing astronauts to cope with several months of isolation, confinement, and in an extreme environment (identified with the acronym ICE). One of the best ways to study this on Earth is by observing others who also spend several months on actual ice in Antarctica.

NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, have a new collaborative agreement to study the effects of living in the polar environment.

In an initial research collaboration, a study developed and led by Dr. Candice Alfano, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Houston, will analyze people who work in Antarctica for long periods of time.

It’s relatively simple to place subjects in isolation or confinement for the purpose of studying mood and behavior, but the extreme environment element is harder to find.

Sometimes called “White Mars,” Antarctica is perfect because “you can’t walk off the ice. That goes for whether you’re having a health, behavioral health or a personal issue, you’re not going anywhere,” said Lisa Spence, project manager for NASA flight analogs in the Human Research Program. “That is very similar to spaceflight. It changes your mindset about how you are going to respond when you know you can’t leave.”

Training camp set up on the foot hills of Mt. Erebus near McMurdo Station in the Antarctic.

Training camp set up on the foot hills of Mt. Erebus near McMurdo Station in the Antarctic.
Credits: NASA

Just how extreme is the extreme environment of Antarctica at the South Pole? Not only is 98 percent of the continent covered in ice, but it also has extreme winds and an average temperature range of minus 49 to 26 degrees, making it the coldest place on Earth. At the South Pole, the sun disappears for months at a time. Known as “The Polar Night,” the sun goes behind the horizon in late April and is not seen again until mid-September.

Once the sun is down, you could be stuck there. It is unsafe for airplanes or ships to travel to most parts of Antarctica during the winter because of the extremely cold temperatures and sea ice.

NASA astronaut Christina Hammock Koch has spent many seasons at various Antarctic and Arctic stations helping scientists conduct research remotely, including a year at the South Pole. “[This] means going months without seeing the sun, with the same crew, and without shipments of mail or fresh food,” she said. “The isolation, absence of family and friends, and lack of new sensory inputs are all conditions that you must find a strategy to thrive within.”

While certainly a difficult situation, Koch found ways to cope. She exercised, found hobbies, socialized with others in the station, and saved care packages to open at later times. She also said, “The most helpful strategy I developed was to avoid thinking about all the things I was missing out on and instead focused on the unique things in the moment that I would never get to experience again.”

These factors combine to create an atmosphere suitable for the NASA, NSF and UH study. The study, scheduled to begin in February 2017, will include approximately 110 U.S. Antarctic program volunteers located at the McMurdo and South Pole stations.

Map showing the locations of McMurdo and South Pole Stations on the continent of Antarctica.
Map showing the locations of McMurdo and South Pole Stations on the continent of Antarctica.

“McMurdo is a coastal station with a population of around 250 people during the winter, or the Northern Hemisphere’s summer. Evacuation, though difficult, is possible. In contrast, the South Pole is far inland near the center of the continent and can have temperatures of -100°F. Evacuation is simply not possible in winter,” Dr. Alfano said.

By studying volunteers from both stations, researchers hope to more precisely understand the greatest sources of stress. Volunteers will complete periodic computer-based questionnaires, provide saliva samples, and wear a monitor that records sleep and wake cycles. Researchers will use these collective tools to look for signs of stress and changes in psychological health of the volunteers during their time in Antarctica.

The plan is to refine and finalize a checklist to be used to “provide an efficient means of monitoring signs and symptoms that a behavioral condition may be developing. Therefore, allowing early detection and early intervention,” Lauren Leveton, Ph.D., of NASA’s Behavioral Performance team said.

This checklist will be useful to NASA in relation to future space travel, but Alfano points out it will have other applications as well, such as among deployed military personnel.

Simultaneously to Alfano’s study, the NASA and NSF partnership will deploy NASA clinical staff to Antarctica, which will give NASA’s medical personnel (flight surgeons) a unique chance to treat individuals in the extreme environment. Participating flight surgeons will be on rotation during summer or winter-over stays.

At the Johnson Space Center, NASA flight surgeons are on call around the clock for remote consultations with astronauts who are on International Space Station missions. Allowing these doctors to work in the Antarctic environment will give them additional training to call upon when consulting with the astronauts during future long duration, deep space missions, including the journey to Mars.

“The first-hand experience of living and working at McMurdo and the South Pole will be invaluable for the flight surgeons’ grasp of what astronauts encounter during long duration spaceflight,” Dr. Terrance Taddeo, Johnson Space Center Chief Medical Officer, said.

“This is a win-win,” Spence said. “Not only are NASA’s flight surgeons gaining a better understanding of the ICE environment of the astronauts they work with, but NSF’s Antarctic clinics will have additional onsite medical expertise.”

Alfano’s project, formally called “Characterizations of Psychological Risk, Overlap with Physical Health, and Associated Performance in Isolated, Confined, and Extreme (ICE) Environments,” will conclude following data collection during the 2017 winter season.

As NASA prepares for future human missions to Mars, keeping the astronauts safe on the journey is a top priority. The southernmost continent on Earth will provide researchers with the perfect analog for studying the behavioral health effects of an extreme environment.

Monica Edwards
Charles Lloyd
NASA Human Research Engagement and Communications

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/antarctica-provides-ice-to-study-behavior-effects-in-astronauts

 

Chronicles from Concordia with Beth Healey – Part 5: Dark Mars (continued)

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DSC_4109-CustomFollow Beth Healey, a 28-year-old medical doctor from London, through her 14-months at the Concordia Station ending in January 2016 as a European Space Station researcher. Here is an excerpt from her blog and a link to Part 5: Chronicles from Concordia.

One of the most hostile environments for an analog is Concordia located more than 600 miles from the coastal stations of Antarctica. Many researchers use this facility to study psychology, physiology, and medicine. Some mission crewmembers perform a winter-over where they are part of research lasting the entire winter, which in Antarctica is nine months.

Part 5: Dark Mars (continued)

Looking up towards such a plethora of stars – many of them with planets of their own we know today – I could not help wondering what worlds might be out there, and whether there could be anyone or anything looking back in our direction. It felt strange and exciting to run experiments preparing for humans to stay on moons and planets, with the Milky Way in all its vastness and splendor right above our heads. Would humankind one day even take that real step to the stars and travel beyond our Solar System?

We did not see the sun for 105 days at Concordia during this polar night. Much like me, I am sure everyone was affected, but the crew reacted in different ways and people were affected more at different times. It was difficult to predict how people would feel and behave on different days.

Chronicles from Concordia with Beth Healey, Part 4: Dark Mars

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IMG_3378a1280Follow Beth Healey, a 28-year-old medical doctor from London, through her 14-months at the Concordia Station ending in January 2016 as a European Space Station researcher. Here is an excerpt from her blog and a link to Part 4: Chronicles from Concordia.

One of the most hostile environments for an analog is Concordia located more than 600 miles from the coastal stations of Antarctica. Many researchers use this facility to study psychology, physiology, and medicine. Some mission crewmembers perform a winter-over where they are part of research lasting the entire winter, which in Antarctica is nine months.

Part 4: Dark Mars:

My best way of dealing with the suspenseful waiting for winter was to focus on my work. The days quickly got shorter and shorter, the light itself was failing as the sun was slipping away. The scenic beauty of the landscape around the station faded as the season steadily and inexorably turned from intimidating to deadly. More and more I actually wanted winter to start. The sooner it starts, the sooner it finishes. And soon enough we looked out of the window towards that last sliver of sun on the horizon, knowing that this was the last sunset – or sunrise – we would see in four months’ time. Not only winter was here, but night as well.

Without the sun, Concordia really did feel like a different planet. “White Mars” as it is often called, or perhaps one should say “Dark Mars”. In some way the sun had made me feel connected to the outside world. The sun, at least, was the same as back home, and this gave me a sense of familiarity. Losing that made me feel cut off, in a different world. The sun also gives you energy, especially in the morning. Without it I felt like I was working on a continual night shift.

I worried I had become someone different.

Midwinter-crew

Chronicles from Concordia with Beth Healey – Part 3: White Mars

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Converted-photos_48Follow Beth Healey, a 28-year-old medical doctor from London, through her 14-months at the Concordia Station ending in January 2016 as a European Space Station researcher. Here is an excerpt from her blog and a link to Part 3: Chronicles from Concordia.

Part 3: White Mars:

At a few points during the summer period I did consider my decision to come there, and if it was indeed the right choice for me. The approaching day of “no return”, when the last plane would leave and I would be facing nine months with just twelve other people, gave me some anxiety. What if I had made the wrong decision? The most frightening aspect was not the lethal cold outside, but the isolation inside and how we would react to it – me included.

Chronicles from Concordia with Beth Healey – Part 2: The Arrival

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Epica-Core-LargeFollow Beth Healey, a 28-year-old medical doctor from London, through her 14-months at the Concordia Station ending in January 2016 as a European Space Station researcher. Here is an excerpt from her blog and a link to Part 2: Chronicles from Concordia.

One of the most hostile environments for an analog is Concordia located more than 600 miles from the coastal stations of Antarctica. Many researchers use this facility to study psychology, physiology, and medicine. Some mission crewmembers perform a winter-over where they are part of research lasting the entire winter, which in Antarctica is nine months.

Part 2: The Arrival:

I was lucky enough to be allowed to stay in the cockpit for the landing at the coastal station and watched in awe as we touched down smoothly onto the ice runway. We had arrived at the entrance to this frigid world… As we flew in over the mainland, the full magnificence of the place became obvious. As Scott, the polar explorer long before me, had put it in his journals, Antarctica “satisfies every claim of scenic magnificence.” He was right.

Chronicles from Concordia with Beth Healey – Part 1: The Induction

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One of the most hostile environments for an analog is Concordia located more than 600 miles from the coastal stations of Antarctica. Many researchers use this facility to study psychology, physiology, and medicine. Some mission crewmembers perform a winter-over where they are part of research lasting the entire winter, which in Antarctica is nine months.

Beth Healey, a 28-year-old medical doctor from London, spent 14-months at the Concordia Station ending in January 2016 as a European Space Station researcher. She recently began posting reflections about the experience. Here are a few excerpts from her blog and a link to Part 1: Chronicles from Concordia.

Stepping out of the plane was like stepping out on another planet…There is a reason Concordia is often referred to as “White Mars”. There are no penguins or seals there, no native animals, let alone native people. The bright light of the 24-hour Sun reflected off the snow is blinding. My labored breathing was not out of physical exertion, but caused by the high altitude – as if we had been up on a summit of the Alps. Except for our group, the place was completely still and ghostly silent.

Part 1: The Induction:

I am 28 years old and like what many girls my age do – shopping and getting a good haircut, and I don’t mind a nice spa treatment once in a while. These features are generally not considered well suited to life in a polar environment. However, I do not see why that has to be the case (although admittedly shopping may have to wait, spas will be run on a very individual basis and a decent hairdresser may be the last of your preoccupations at -80C). It is true, I am not built for minus 80 degrees cold, but then, who is really? So why should not I, Beth Healey, go polar for real?

HERA 11 patch inspired by Apollo 11 patch

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The 47th anniversary of Apollo 11 takes place during the Human Exploration Mission Analog (HERA) Mission 11. The Apollo 11 mission left the first human footprints on the moon. HERA 11 takes us one small step closer to making footprints on Mars.

This historic event was not lost on the HERA 11 crew. In designing their mission patch, they drew strong parallels with the Apollo 11 mission patch. They used the symbolism of Apollo 11 to reflect the role of the HERA in advancing human exploration while recognizing the contributions of prior programs on our journey to Mars.

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Aquanauts experience communication delays

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NEEMO 21 is now conducting operations under 15-minute communication time delay – including science and exploration dives! Due to the distance between Earth and Mars, communications can be between 4 and 24 minutes one-way, depending on the orientation of the planets. Aquanaut Dr. Marc O Griofa says “you are almost chasing the past, present & future all at the same time” while coordinating interactions between Mission Control and the crew. The goal is to figure the tools and protocols we need to effectively communicate under time-delayed conditions when astronauts explore Mars.

International Aquanauts

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NEEMO 21 has an international crew, similar to the International Space Station. Our aquanauts this mission are from United States, Germany, Ireland and South Africa.

13708365_1230178287001586_948191410753892981_oNEEMO 21 Aquanauts: Reid Wiseman (NASA), Megan McArthur (NASA), Matthias Maurer (ESA), Marc O Griofa (Teloregen/VEGA/AirDocs), Noel Du Toit (Naval Postgraduate School), Dawn Kernagis (Institute for Human & Machine Cognition), and FIU Habitat Technicians Hank Stark and Sean Moore.

Deep Sea for Deep Space: NASA Astronauts Train For Future Missions

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Pictured at the end of Mission Day 1 are the NEEMO 21 aquanauts, clockwise from top: Matthias Maurer (ESA), Marc O Griofa (Teloregen/VEGA/AirDocs), NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Dawn Kernagis (Institute for Human & Machine Cognition), and Noel Du Toit (Naval Postgraduate School). Inside the Aquarius habitat are Florida International University Habitat Technicians Hank Stark (left) and Sean Moore (right).

Pictured at the end of Mission Day 1 are the NEEMO 21 aquanauts, clockwise from top: Matthias Maurer (ESA), Marc O Griofa (Teloregen/VEGA/AirDocs), NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Dawn Kernagis (Institute for Human & Machine Cognition), and Noel Du Toit (Naval Postgraduate School). Inside the Aquarius habitat are Florida International University Habitat Technicians Hank Stark (left) and Sean Moore (right).What do the bottom of a blue ocean and the surface of a Red Planet have in common? Both are extreme environments.

 

A group of astronauts, engineers and scientists ventured to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on July 21 to prepare for future deep space missions and the journey to Mars. Isolation at the bottom of the ocean simulates life and work for astronauts in microgravity, making the 16-day mission an analog for future space exploration. They will test tools and techniques for future spaceflight and will conduct simulated spacewalks outside of their undersea habitat, Aquarius.

Inside Aquarius, the international crew will conduct a variety of research and operations studies, such as testing a mini DNA sequencer that NASA astronaut Kate Rubins also will be testing aboard the International Space Station, and a telemedicine device that will be used for future space applications. During their simulated spacewalks, the crew will collect samples for marine biology and geology studies, test software for managing operations, and participate in a coral restoration project. Throughout many of these tasks, the mission will also test communications delays similar to those that would be encountered on a mission to Mars.

“NEEMO 21 astronauts and crew will pioneer complex tasks on the seafloor utilizing the most advanced underwater navigation and science tools which are methodically choreographed to mimic a Mars exploration traverse,” NEEMO Project Lead Bill Todd said. “Equipment can fail, communication can be challenging and tasks can take longer than expected. Other tasks go just as planned. All cases are equally beneficial. It’s how we learn and how we are able to assemble all of this together so that someday we’re prepared for the unexpected when we are living on and traversing the Martian surface.”

NASA Astronaut Reid Wiseman will command the first eight days of the NEEMO 21 mission. Wiseman flew in space as part of Expedition 40/41 in 2014, spending 166 days living and working aboard the International Space Station. Wiseman was a naval aviator and test pilot prior to joining NASA in 2009.

NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur will command the second half of NEEMO 21, and will live in the habitat for the entire 16-day mission. McArthur flew on the STS-125 shuttle mission in 2009, and has served as a Mission Control spacecraft communicator for both space shuttle and space station missions. Prior to joining NASA, McArthur obtained a doctorate in oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Joining McArthur for the entire 16 days is ESA (European Space Agency) Astronaut Matthias Maurer. For the first eight days, Marc O’Griofa, chief medical and technology officer for Noninvasive Medical Technologies Inc., also will join Wiseman, McArthur and Mauerer. For the second half of the mission, McArthur and Mauerer will be joined by Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition Research Scientist Dawn Kernagis and Naval Postgraduate School Researcher Noel Du Toit.

The NEEMO crew and two professional habitat technicians will live 60 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base undersea research habitat 6.2 miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. NEEMO 21 is supported by the Human Health and Performance Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center with funding from ESA and partnerships with the Naval Postgraduate School, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Vega Telehealth, TeloRegen, and Johns Hopkins.

For more information about NEEMO, the crews and links to follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter, visit: www.nasa.gov/neemo.

For more information on other analog missions NASA is conducting, go to www.nasa.gov/analog

Image Credit: NASA/Karl Shreeves

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