The design secrets Nasa’s using to keep astronauts happy in space

Big windows, fresh fruit and regular phone calls home help manage the mental health of astronauts on the International Space Station. But missions to Mars on beyond will require a whole new approach to how spaceships are designed

In 1976, a mission on board Russia’s Salyut-5 space station was dramatically cut short when cosmonauts reported a strange smell. But an investigation found nothing wrong on board, and in the end, Nasa concluded that the event had probably been a hallucination brought on by mental health issues.

Astronauts are chosen for their cool demeanours under pressure – Buzz Aldrin’s heart rate famously stayed at 88bpm during the launch for the first moon landing 50 years ago – but psychological distress is an important consideration when planning stints in space.

In 1973, overworked astronauts on one Skylab mission turned off their radios in order to get a day off from Nasa’s commands. “There were some missions that were terminated early because of difficulties in the crew getting along,” says Jay Buckey, an astronaut who flew on the space shuttle and a professor at Dartmouth Medical School who studies space physiology.

As we start planning longer missions to Mars and beyond, considering mental health will become even more important. With that in mind, space agencies and academics have a host of solutions from more comfortable interior design to mid-mission mental health therapy.

Fresh fruit and LED lighting

One of the biggest issues is isolation and confinement, which is hard on morale and can spark depression. The noise, boredom, lack of fresh air and dull food doesn’t help, while interrupted sleep can cause fatigue. To help, Nasa has tracked sleep using actigraphy – when sensors watch for movement — and installed LED lighting to help realign circadian rhythms. The agency has also encouraged journaling, to give astronauts a way to vent without picking arguments with other crew members.

Alongside those techniques to boost mental wellness, space agencies have focused on improving food (including bringing up fresh fruit when the ISS is resupplied), allowing astronauts to bring up a few personal items, and offering plenty of video calls from friends and family to help keep them feeling connected and chipper in space. But not all of those pick-me-ups are available on three-year-long missions to Mars, so more needs to be done developing interior design for spacecraft and figuring out how to treat depression millions of miles from home.

When Buckey flew on his 16-day Space Shuttle mission in 1998, there were email and video conferences with family, as well as mental-health monitoring, but nothing like what’s being considered for future Mars missions that could last for multiple years, he says. “After that trip, I became very interested in the problems that need to be solved in order to do missions to some place like Mars, like what are the medical and physiological challenges to sending people to Mars,” he says.

“It’s challenging to have a small group of people in an isolated, confined environment for a long period of time.” Part of the solution is choosing the right people and assembling a team that works well together, but it makes sense to create an environment that’s “conducive to good behaviour,” he says.

On the ISS, one of the key design decisions made to keep astronauts happy was the addition of the cupola. This is the big round window that astronauts on the space station retreat to for personal time, to take photos, and simply to watch the planet they’ve left behind. “It’s a big window that allows astronauts to just relax when they have some free time, brought in for the behavioural aspects,” says Emmanuel Urquieta, an assistant professor at the Center for Space Medicine and scientist at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH). “It fills a need for us as humans to feel we still belong to the earth below. It’s one of the most popular spots on the ISS.”

Exactly what additions longer missions will require remains to be seen, but they are being studied as part of a workshop held at MIT Media Lab earlier this year and follow up projects funded by TRISH. “There’s a lot of aspects to consider,” says Urquieta, but one aspect is interior design. Astronauts may be able to tolerate a bit of physical and mental discomfort for a few weeks or months, but a multi-year mission to Mars is a different matter. “These missions are absolutely different,” says Urquieta. “We truly believe that interior design needs to be changed, mainly for behavioural and psychological reasons.”

Hygge in space

Materials are one area being considered. “One of the big concerns [for spacecraft] is to keep the interior as sterile as possible – so there’s no bacteria, no fungi, no viruses,” Urquieta says. “From an interior design perspective, this makes materials not very nice – they’re plain white, there’s no texture. It’s usually very bland.” Materials are being created that are prettier and nicer to touch, to bring a bit of hygge to space. There’s also work to create fabrics that are sterile to nasty bugs but help promote a healthy microbiome, so bacteria that are beneficial are brought along for the (more comfortable) ride.

Making good use of small spaces is also key. The living space on a Mars mission will be about the size of two shipping containers for four people over three years — it’s enough to make a London or New York flat feel spacious. “It’s pretty small,” Urquieta says. Thankfully, there have been lessons learned from the space shuttle and space station about how to design places for people to sleep, to offer a good night’s rest as well as a bit of privacy. It’s not yet clear which layout is the best, says Allison Anderson, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado.

Designs were trialled using VR and AR, but she says it turns out actually building a mockup is more useful for researchers. “The biggest takeaways so far are that personal space is critical for long-duration missions,” she says. “And soundproofing of that personal space is really important.” Astronauts need a space to have a chat with their significant other back on Earth, and somewhere to unwind, she says.

Indeed, what may be required is what Maggie Coblentz, research specialist with the Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), refers to as “mediated atmosphere”, an idea for workspaces that self-regulate in order to give a user exactly what they need at any moment, whether it’s a quiet library or a VR-stroll through a forest to clear their mind. “We’re translating that project into a space environment so we can design a workspace, pod or even recreational environment that someone could go inside,” says Coblentz, depending on what they need at the time.

That’s largely visual. Coblentz points to another project called Spatial Flux, which creates “temporal architecture”, which are inflatable silicon structures such as furniture and rooms that respond to your body and are designed for use in space. “In zero gravity, you can’t just lie on your back, wrap yourself up in your sheets to get cozy,” she says. “You might actually need a structure that wraps itself around you… to create that feeling of being hugged or being cozy.”

Interface design is another consideration – imagine having to spend three years using the same devices if they’re frustrating and fiddly. “The different interfaces they have to deal with on these missions is critical,” says Urquieta, but often not considered in terms of ergonomics, especially as astronauts are going to be using them while weightless. “These interactions are very different from what is traditionally developed for applications.”

VR views and space jams

For Mars missions, one serious challenge is the lack of windows. Because of radiation in space, a mission to Mars will have no windows, meaning no ISS-style cupola for astronauts to relax in and watch the world (or worlds) go by. “Imagine being there for three years with no windows,” says Urquieta. “Everything inside the aircraft is going to be completely constant — the temperature, the humidity, the smell. There’s going to be no breeze, no natural light.” Of course, internal environment can be altered, daylight can be simulated, cooler temperatures can be used to signal evening, and scents introduced to remind astronauts of the woods or the beach back home, especially paired with VR headsets, Urquieta notes.

VR is one idea being considered to help astronauts relax in longer space missions. A researcher at Ohio State is looking at VR, in particular paired with exercise, to bring images of nature on-board, in order to help reduce stress and stave off depression. VR could also be used for entertainment, but Coblentz says there’s even efforts to create space-specific musical instruments. “Social interactions are limited, so we’re building a lot of cultural artefacts, such as musical instruments for space,” she explains. “We have a group who has designed instruments that will only perform in zero gravity — it might not seem health focused at first glance, but we know here on Earth these are the types of things that make us feel connected to our planet and each other.” It may sound a bit odd, but astronauts frequently bring instruments to the ISS, with Chris Hadfield famously playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in space.

Whether any of these ideas works remains to be seen – and we won’t really know how a long-term mission impacts astronauts until we send a craft on one. “There’s a lot of technology around non-invasive means, like very specific cameras or sensors, embedded into the environment of a spacecraft that are able to tell if an astronaut is having behavioural issues,” Urquieta says. Researchers at Florida Polytechnic University are building a spacesuit that uses wireless sensors to monitor not only physical but emotional states of astronauts, in order to reduce stress or anxiety by adjusting temperature, light exposure and colour, and oxygen levels.

Beyond that, what happens if an astronaut needs mental health help part of the way through a long mission? “We’re also developing AI-based medical decision making that will enable them to make a medical diagnosis and then initiate treatment,” says Urquieta. Buckey, meanwhile, is working on an interactive system for addressing depression mid-mission when millions of miles from the nearest counsellor.

Mock missions

There are ways to approximate missions to see what works best. Simulated environments such as HERA and HI-SEAS approximate what it’s like to be in space by enclosing researchers into a craft-like building for weeks or even months, while researchers work with scientists in Antarctica to get feedback. Urquieta took part in HERA for 30 days, staying in the simulated spacecraft for a mock mission to help uncover the mental and physical health impacts.

Key to his happiness on board was his care package of personal items as well as real-time communications to friends and family back home – though Skype calls won’t be available in multi-year missions to Mars. “In this simulation, as our mission was getting longer, and they simulated communications, we were not able to have our weekly family conference,” he says. “That definitely played a big role in how I felt.”

But for those shorter missions, whether Earth-bound simulations or real trips into space, the discomfort caused by a cramped craft, awkward living quarters or other habitat issues are easier to bear. “The importance of spacecraft design is an exponential function,” she says, as missions get longer. For six month missions at HI-SEAS, researchers could endure most irritations in the simulation craft. But as that stretched to eight or twelve months, issues such as lack of soundproofing and no personal space were no longer tolerable, Anderson says.

Buckey stresses his mission was short, so not applicable to ISS or a future Mars mission, but the astronauts were kept busy with experiments. “People worked hard to get those experiments in space, so it’s a little bit stressful,” he says. “Still, we had a good time, it’s great to look out the window, and we had a good team with a lot of camaraderie.”

And that’s the most important part of keeping everyone happy on a three-year mission to Mars: picking the right team and making sure they work well together. “You can start with a good team, and a poorly designed spacecraft will cause issues,” Anderson says. “But if you start with a team that doesn’t work well together, the spacecraft is never going to fix that.”

She adds: “A lot of the engineering problems that we have to send humans to the moon or Mars are solvable. I think the human element and understanding how to keep people working happily and healthily for that duration, that’s the real big unknown.”

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