New Study Finds Sleep May Be the Final Frontier For Astronauts

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Sleep troubles are an all too common problem for people in the United States. At least two thirds of Americans struggle to get a good night’s rest, according to the American Sleep Foundation. For many, this only means having to stifle more yawns during the first few hours of the day or having to grab an extra cup of coffee in the morning, but for astronauts, a new study indicates that sleep problems could be particularly dangerous.

Researchers analyzed the sleeping habits and patterns of 64 astronauts on 80 missions and 21 astronauts on International Space Station missions before, during, and after their time spent in space, which amounted to an examination of over 4,000 nights on Earth and more than 4,200 nights in space.

According to NASA's rules, astronauts' schedules need to have 8.5 hours budgeted for sleep.
According to NASA’s rules, astronauts’ schedules need to have 8.5 hours budgeted for sleep.

On ISS missions, astronauts only get six hours of sleep a night, and on orbiting space shuttles, they get even less sleep.

Perhaps the most troubling thing that the study found was that about three-quarters of astronauts use sleeping pills during their time in space, which could affect their performance and create dangerous risks.

Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Laura Barger, who led the study, said that, “It’s clear that more effective measures are needed to promote adequate sleep in crew members, both during training and spaceflight, as sleep deficiency has been associated with performance decrements in numerous laboratory and field-based studies.”

She then added that the sleeping pills could jeopardize a crew member’s ability to react in an emergency, pointing out that government health guidelines warn patients not to engage in any hazardous work requiring high levels of mental alertness when on sleeping pills.

“This consideration is especially important because all crew members on a given mission may be under the influence of a sleep-promoting medication at the same time,” said Barger. “In fact, on the four shuttle missions on which all crew members participated, all crew members reported taking sleep-medications on the same night 6% of the time.”

According to NASA’s rules, astronauts’ schedules need to have 8.5 hours budgeted for sleep. However, cold, heat, noise, light, and weightlessness all get in the way, Barger says, so more solutions are needed, especially if agencies hope to launch longer missions.

NASA said in a statement that it’s fully committed to understand the physical impacts of long-duration spaceflight.

“Our astronauts work in harsh, complex environments where they are sometimes subjected to uncomfortable and high stress situations,” said NASA in the statement. “The agency works hard to identify and implement countermeasures that can ensure astronauts are able to get the same quality and quantity of sleep in space as they do on Earth.”

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