Cognition can be the difference between life and death on deep-space missions. Imagine the catastrophes that could occur – whether on the International Space Station or in route to Mars – if a crew member has a lapse of attention on a spacewalk or a memory deficit while navigating due to sleep deprivation.
The cognitive risks posed to astronauts are tangible but still poorly understood. That’s why cognitive neuroscientists are taking center stage in a series of NASA studies using the HERA – Human Exploration Research Analog. This on-Earth habitat simulates life in space.
“HERA represents an impressive effort by NASA to conduct a large-scale investigation of the various psychological and cognitive neuroscience components that will be essential to future long-duration space flights to places like asteroids and Mars,” says cognitive neuroscientist Richard Addante, who was a mission specialist for HERA mission 14.
Addante spoke in detail with us about his experiences in the confined research space aboard HERA, how he became interested in space research, what scientists are learning about brains in space, and the important role of cognitive neuroscientists in space exploration.
CNS: You are the first psychologist and neuroscientist to participate in a NASA mission as a crew member. How did that happen? How did you first get into space research as a cognitive neuroscientist?
Addante: I first became interested in space research when my mom took me to watch the space shuttle Columbia launch as a 7-year old in 1989 for STS-28. This got me into science, and I won a science fair in junior high with a botany project on seed growth.
As I grew up, I became intrigued by the mysteries of the human brain as a final frontier science. In college, I attended the weekly colloquium lectures on neuroscience at Princeton University, which motivated me to conduct research with Dr. Andrew Leynes at The College of New Jersey on the physiology of human memory. Our work on brain waves for gender stereotype memory got selected to present to the U.S. Congress, where we met some NASA administrators, and that rekindled that boyhood spark for space.
I went on to do a neuroscience Ph.D. at UC Davis, and while there, UC Davis astronaut alumni Tracy Caldwell inspired me to follow in her footsteps with a pilot license from the university airport, among other activities. I applied for the space program in 2008 and did not succeed, but never looked back and still haven’t given up. That led me to HERA, for which I was a mission specialist doing neuroscience for the space program.
Imagine being at space-camp for adult scientists, living in a rocket ship at NASA and conducting every kind of science you can think of, from neuroscience to botany, rocketry, aviation, and engineering. What a dream!
CNS: What was your role on the crew in HERA?
Addante: As a mission specialist, I was responsible for doing spacewalks, asteroid landings, and explorations using virtual reality systems. I also got to use my aviation experience, doing a lot of testing of flight simulators for spaceships, lunar landers, and the Canada Arm robotic system simulator – all while collecting neuroscience data of EEG, fNIRS, and behavioral neuropsychological batteries of cognition. It was awesome. Imagine being at space-camp for adult scientists, living in a rocket ship at NASA and conducting every kind of science you can think of, from neuroscience to botany, rocketry, aviation, and engineering. What a dream! Every now and then, we even got to sleep, too.
CNS: What is the simulated habitat like?
Addante: I’m told that our habitat was a lot like that used in the move The Martian – though I haven’t seen it yet… grant and job deadlines. It was three stories high. The first story was basically our workspace, including the flight simulators, medical station, science bench’s, virtual reality airlock, and the hygiene module. The second story was our living space, which had computer stations, a small kitchen area for reheating the dried food packets from the ISS, an exercise bike, and free weights. The top level was our bunks, which we rarely used as we were part of chronic sleep deprivation study. As we had no contact with the outside world, it really gave us the sense of being immersed on a space mission, which we took so seriously that upon egressing, it took us time to re-adjust ‘back to earth’.
Overall, the HERA capsule was a small space, about 620 square feet, to share confined with three other people for a long time, and reminded me of being on a long sailing trip in small boat. One of my favorite parts was disconnecting from the internet, from social media, and from email for a while, and just being able to focus on the actual work at hand in the capsule.
CNS: How was working in the HERA different than working in a traditional lab?
Addante: Being in the capsule was a very different experience than working in a team outside. Usually in the real world, we can leave a situation when someone is frustrating us, or we can ask them to leave. Life is different in a space capsule: There is nowhere to escape to or hide at, and we can’t just leave or run away from things you don’t like. You are really forced to work together to figure it out, so it made for better teamwork and made us better teammates.
CNS: Can you share a story from life in the HERA habitat?
Addante: One of the most surreal parts of the HERA mission was when we rode out a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey. Having a real emergency made the analog research environment suddenly very real. We didn’t know the full extent of what was happening outside, but we had some good indicators. That night, it was incredibly loud as we were surrounded by tornadoes, but when we asked Mission Control on the radio, they stayed in character and reported we were passing through an asteroid belt and just some space debris not to worry about.
In reality, they were working heroically, making a lot of personal sacrifices to their vehicles, homes, and personal safety to ensure that we were protected the entire time. When we finally got the call to emergency abort, we left the confinement and found an apocalyptic scene of an outside world with a city underwater.
CNS: What were you most excited to learn about the human brain and space travel through HERA?
Addante: One of my most exciting days was during training, when we got to do what I called a “neuroscience triathlon”: EEG, fNIRS, and fMRI all in one day. I had spent 15 years doing neuroscience projects, attaching electrodes and running fMRI studies as a student, postdoc, and then faculty, and it was so exciting when I realized I was now doing the same thing at NASA of all places! Years of training and hard work finally became connected with a childhood dream of space travel efforts with NASA in a way I had never expected, and it was incredible to realize that humble moment.
I was also really excited to learn that NASA had a shared research interest in human memory and the hippocampus – which had been a core pillar of my dissertation and subsequent current faculty research program. It turns out, the hippocampus isn’t just very sensitive to mild hypoxia for amnesia deficits in recollection and implicit memory (Addante 2015), but also to ionizing radiation in space, and it is important to understand the effects of space travel and confinement on both the hippocampus and the spatial cognition that relies upon it.
In mission, I made sure to send some videos (for example, here) of our EEG research in the capsule to the educational institutions that have supported my STEM training in brain research.
I never expected that I’d have my own hippocampus scanned by NASA at HERA, so that was very exciting, and I even wore my Mars socks while in the scanner (see photo above).
CNS: What are some the major challenges in understanding the impact of space travel on the human brain?
Addante: This is a tough question, because there are so many challenges and important questions to ask, investigate, and answer. First, it’s a challenge to measure human brains in space for a host of practical reasons (e.g. fMRI won’t fit up there), so we often must rely upon only pre- and post-measures. But as an EEG guy, I see great opportunity for EEG – which is very lightweight and small in volume space – to provide high-fidelity data of neural activity while in orbit and while exposed to factors such as space radiation, task overload, isolation, sleep deprivation.
Second among challenges is the very small sample sizes available from which to draw conclusions. I have a profound respect for this issue, as my dissertation also had to devise ways to overcome this challenge, using rare neuropsychological patients limited to a sample size of N=3. This is one reason why HERA research is so important: We can study effects of isolation, confinement, task load, sleep deprivation, social team dynamics and stressors, and other parallels to the International Space Station while on Earth in ways that can yield much better sample sizes and control of essential experimental variables.
Third, I think it is important to understand the brain in space travel not as a reactive entity, but rather as an interactive system that will respond to stimuli in the mission differentially, based upon the ongoing neural states, moods, attitudes, and conditions that exist in the circumstances. Understanding the effects of brain states on cognition in critical decision-making situations can go a long way in helping us to understand how the brain will react in space, supporting our success in long-duration space flight.
The human mind and brain will determine the success or failure of a Mars mission with far more variability than any rocket or engineering.
CNS: For cognitive neuroscientists interested in working with NASA, what advice do you have?
Addante: I would encourage cognitive neuroscientists interested in working with NASA to apply to absolutely do so: It’s a great organization and a great way to expand your research in an important & meaningful way. There are funding opportunities for scientists to apply for at all levels, from students, to postdocs, and faculty, via the NSPIRES website of NASA funding opportunity announcements. There are outstanding opportunities to get involved with HERA as a crew member, too: they seek candidates with ‘astronaut-like’ characteristics which include advanced degrees and adventurous personalities.
I would contend that the human mind and brain will determine the success or failure of a Mars mission with far more variability than any rocket or engineering (which are less variable or susceptible to perturbations natural or manmade), and hence represents the most important element of unanswered challenges to overcome if we are to become an interplanetary species.
One of the toughest challenges for reaching Mars is understanding the psychology and team dynamics of isolation during such long trips, and this is precisely what HERA is designed to test out. In the 1950s and 60s, the unknown systems for spaceflight were rocketry and engineering, and they found test pilots to bravely do the research that led to success and landed us on the Moon. Now the unknown systems for long-duration space travel to Mars and beyond is the human brain, mind, body, and how we manage the social team dynamics that will govern success. The HERA team is the modern test pilots of these psychological systems, pioneering the next steps forward via essential analog simulations, and gives scientists the data they need to succeed as the heroes of generations past did.
CNS: Anything else you’d like to add?
Addante: You never know how your work will come back to pay off later. One thing that helped me be successful with HERA was the experience in grad school as a beta-tester of ERP Lab for Steve Luck’s team with Javier Lopez-Calderon. That was just an earnest effort to develop new software technology to cohesively analyze EEG data, and I never thought it would somehow relate to doing work for the space program. This experience helped to me in patiently working through the systems we were testing out in HERA before they could be sent up to the International Space System for real implementation. So thanks, Steve & Javier, and Viva ERPLab!
-Lisa M.P. Munoz