psychosocial adaptation within a team; and risk of adverse behavioral conditions and psychiatric disorders. Yet NASA’s policy has been to restrict access to psychological test material and other personal information needed to investigate how these factors affect performance, behavior, or mental health. As a result, empirical studies assessing the dynamics of these risks and their impact on mission performance and health are sparse; most of the relevant information is more anecdotal than evidence-based. Therefore, prominent among current priorities is the need to improve access to relevant data in a manner that is consistent with both the confidentiality rights of the astronauts and the scientific imperatives of NASA’s mission.


To realize the full potential of crewed space missions, it is critical that appropriately selected astronauts are provided an environment that ensures not only their physical health and well-being but also their psychological health and their continued capacity for higher-order cognitive abilities such as problem solving, situational awareness, and judgment—as well as those human qualities such as inquisitiveness, courage, and determination upon which the successful exploration of space ultimately depends.

Although recent work (e.g., using functional brain imaging techniques) has begun to reveal the physiological basis of cognitive performance, there is currently no physiological marker of “general cognitive performance capacity” or “cognitive reserve.”3 At present, the only way to determine cognitive performance capacity is to administer cognitive tests designed to assess specific aspects of cognitive ability such as learning, problem-solving, emotional lability, and so on.

Because space is a hostile and unforgiving environment, even small errors in judgment or coordination can potentially have profoundly adverse consequences. Construction, repair, and exploration in space depend upon extravehicular activities, involving elaborate preparation by astronauts. In their review, Mallis and DeRoshia list a number of documented incidents involving operational performance errors by astronauts, along with evidence of irritability, impatience, declines in performance on a reasoning task, etc., during American and Soviet space missions.4Figure 5.1 shows a photograph of an astronaut performing an extravehicular activity with his boots on the wrong feet. Although this error resulted in no damage to astronaut, suit, or vehicle, it nevertheless serves as a prosaic reminder that lapses in attention and cognitive performance can and do occur during space missions. It is not difficult to envision serious (even catastrophic) consequences of such lapses.

Cognitive functioning considerations also pertain to ground crew. As pointed out by Mallis and DeRoshia, ground control personnel provide around-the-clock coverage of critical tasks during space missions, and they can be affected in unique ways.5 For example, ground crews working on Mars Exploration Rover operations were required to adapt their work schedules to the 24.6-h Mars sol, which meant that work shifts were initiated 39 min later each day. Because they were exposed to Earth’s 24-h light/dark cycle while continuously shifting their work schedules later each Earth day, it is likely that alertness/performance deficits accrued in these individuals due to circadian desynchrony (experienced by travelers as “jet lag”). Additional research is needed to determine the effects of such schedules on ground crew performance and to devise strategies to ensure that adequate alertness and performance in these individuals can be sustained.

Cognitive Testing

Several neuropsychological and cognitive assessment metrics and batteries currently exist; most were initially developed for the purpose of identifying deficits in neuropsychological functioning that reflect some underlying pathological state. Identification of such deficits or states during space missions is, of course, critical; accurate identification of depression, attention deficits, sleepiness, anxiety, etc., is needed to ensure application of appropriate countermeasures and to subsequently assess the efficacy of those countermeasures. However, the ultimate utility for NASA of cognitive performance testing lies in its potential to (1) inform the astronaut selection process and (2) provide meaningful data for detecting trends in the astronauts’ (and the ground crew’s) status during actual missions. In this context, “status” includes their capacity to perform mission-related tasks and their mood and level of psychological health/well-being at both individual and group levels. This means that cognitive tests must

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