“Staying healthy” is one of the major overarching technological and operational challenges identified by NASA in humankind's Journey to Mars –and rightfully so. Even for the mentally and physically fittest, living and working in space isn't easy. Deprived of the usual outlets for psycho-social support and stress relief – family, social circles, outdoor activities – astronauts and simulated astronauts represent a unique community whose multifaceted needs are what health and performance researchers are only beginning to understand. To assess these needs and optimize health and functional status on current and future space missions, NASA's Behavioral Health and Performance (BHP) branch focuses on three areas of physical and psycho-social intervention: Sleep Risks, Team Risks, and Behavioral Medicine. Behavioral medicine provides crews with tools to detect and respond to environmental stressors. Sleep Risk focuses on countermeasures related to irregular work and sleep patterns, such as work-rest schedules. Team Risks seeks out support mechanisms for the crew as a unit, with an eye towards maximizing cohesion.
In support of NASA's Behavioral Research goals, a team of current and former simulated astronauts devised a study to improve work-rest scheduling, optimize leisure-related payloads, test and validate available stress-relief options, support astronaut self-care, and facilitate the psycho-social well-being of self-contained astronaut communities. By integrating crew self-reports about the stress-relieving effects of non-work activities along with information about resource limitations, media consumption patterns and individual versus group activities, the Mars Games study could provide information invaluable to planning mission infrastructure that leads to improved astronaut mental health and morale before, during and after deployment in a long duration space mission.
With an eye towards successful long duration space habitability, the Mars Games study is currently deployed at HI-SEAS IV, the longest NASA-funded space simulation in history. In order to determine which activities provide the most optimal Time:Stress Relief ratios over time, Mars Games is collecting daily data regarding activities on which the crew spends the most non-work time. As a unique crew-driven research endeavor, the Mars Games study lies on the nexus of physical, mental, and social health in space, potentially contributing to all three major BHP research categories, and offering insights to improve the lives of humans living in isolation and confinement both on and off the planet.