How important is it that we get a 40 winks at night? A recent study of “astronauts” who were on a simulated mission to Mars gives us some guidance on that question.
Mars is far away, and a trip there would require astronauts to be cooped up aboard their spaceship for months, without natural day-night cycles. The Mars500 project sought to test what the effect of such an extended time in space might be, so it selected astronauts using standard criteria, isolated them, and communicated with them solely through time lagged communications that approximated the delay in communications between Earth and a spaceship on its way to Mars. During the 17-month simulation, tests of the astronauts were conducted — and the results now being published show how crucial sleep patterns and the daylight cycle really are.
One crew member went from a 24-hour day cycle to a 25-hour day cycle, which meant he was awake and asleep at odd hours in comparison to the rest of his crew mates — and therefore became isolated. Other crew members began to sleep more and more, and yet another crew member became chronically sleep-deprived and struggled with performance tests as a result. In short, if a real mission to Mars were underway, sleep issues — and their resulting mental health impact — would have been a significant problem for crew performance and cohesion. Researchers will be looking at whether a lighting scheme that better approximates our normal daylight-night rhythms might help.
Anyone who has done much travel — or watched Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation — knows how tough the effects of jet lag can be. Imagine if you had to deal with sleep deprivation for months, stuck with the same people in an unchanging environment, without ever seeing daylight.
Now, get some sleep!