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counting sheep

Sleep deprivation is a pervasive problem for astronauts in space

An astronaut during spaceflight gets just under six hours sleep on shuttle missions.

astro Astronaut sleeping in space. Coconut Science Lab Coconut Science Lab

AFTER A LONG days work there is nothing anyone likes more than a good night’s sleep, however, this can be a problem for many astronauts in space.

A study published in The Lancet shows that sleep deprivation is a common problem for astronauts.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the University of Colorado studied the sleep patterns of 64 astronauts on 80 Shuttle missions and 21 astronauts aboard International Space Station (ISS) missions before, during, and after spaceflight.

In total, they recorded more than 4000 nights of sleep on Earth and more than 4200 in space.

Sleep time 

The research shows that despite NASA scheduling 8·5 hours of sleep per night for crew members in spaceflight, the average duration of sleep during spaceflight was just under six hours on shuttle missions and just over six hours on ISS missions.

The European Space Agency says that sleeping in space is somewhat different than on Earth: “There is no up or down, and everything is weightless. Astronauts can attach their sleeping bags to a wall or a ceiling, and sleep anywhere as long as they don’t float around and bump into something.”

The spaceflight environment, where the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes, is particularly harsh for sleep, finds the report.

Apollo astronauts cited light, noise, and the cooling systems in spacesuits as contributing factors to their poor sleep. However, sleep disturbances continue to occur in modern spaceflight despite quiet and dark ‘sleep stations’ installed on the ISS (shown here by Chris Hadfield).

Many leading scientists speculate that microgravity itself may be to blame for sleep deprivation.

Here astronaut Chris Hadfield explains how sleeping works on the ISS: 

CoconutScienceLab / YouTube

Just 12% of sleep episodes monitored on shuttle missions and 24% on ISS missions lasted 7 hours or more, as compared with 42% and 50%, respectively, in a post-flight data when most astronauts slept at home.

The research also showed that the astronauts were also losing sleep in the run up to their launches, averaging less than 6·5 hours sleep per night during training.

The study showed that the use of sleeping medication was pervasive amongst astronauts in space, with many reporting to use zolpidem and zaleplon during spaceflight.

Sleeping tablets

Sleep medication use was reported by three quarters of ISS crew members at some point during their time on the space station, and by more than three quarters (78%) of shuttle-mission crew members. Sleep medication was used on more than half (52%) of nights in shuttle missions.

“The ability for a crew member to optimally perform if awakened from sleep by an emergency alarm may be jeopardized by the use of sleep-promoting pharmaceuticals,” said Dr Laura K. Barger from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

Dr Charles Czeisler from Harvard and Dr Mathias Basner from the University of Pennsylvania both state that if further explorations to the moon, Mars and beyond are to be considered then more needs to be done to promote sleep during spaceflight and to ensure that the psychological and physical effects are understood.

Read: Astronauts’ hearts grow rounder in space, finds study>

Read: So, what are the chances we’ll see an Irishman (or anybody) head to Mars?>

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