Stress in Space – Judging an Astronaut’s Mental State


I think we have mastered a lot of the physical
problems that come along with space travel. But then psychologically we haven’t really
understood the amount of stress and strain that people are going to be under. Astronauts need to be on constant alert. Maintaining a stress response for a long period of time can lead to exhaustion, we also have problems
with things like inter group conflicts. If you are put in a closed environment with a
lot of other people, this can be very difficult. We also have problems with workload. They
are asked to do too many experiments and they don’t get enough down time. It can be very difficult
for that individual to say, ‘actually I have some thoughts of anxiety,’ or ‘I’m starting to
feel some elements of depression’. It can be easier to cover up those issues than actually
be honest. These problems can lead into increases
in human error. These are not big issues when you are on Earth, everybody makes these everyday
slips, however if your doing that in a very risky environment, then that can have really
adverse effects. Measuring bodily stress is done now in the
space station, they take urine samples, blood samples and so on. But when you are talking
about the psychological stresses of space travel the situation is much more complex.
One way that we think we can help is to look at their speech, or in particular look at
their speaking. In other words the way in which they use speech, they way in which they
sound and the kinds of words they use when they speak. Speech is quite a good test of all kinds of
states of wellbeing, because it is effected by both the physiological state and the psychological
state of the individual. So to explore whether we could use voice to detect changes in mood
and psychological well being, we look at the recordings made during the Mars 500 simulated
mission to Mars. Six cosmonauts were sent on a 9 month trip inside a module, although
the module didn’t go anywhere it was just parked in a car park. What we were able to show was that analysis of the
audio recordings did indeed show situations where a particular speaker may have changed
their mood, or changed their level of excitement, or the topic of discussion became exciting
which changed the way in which they spoke. We were able to identify particular recordings
which, in our sense, were anomalous. They did not seem to follow the standard pattern
of the person’s speech. So we could say; on this particular day, on this particular recording,
the way in which this person was speaking was unusual. Whether the way in which they feel effects
the way that they speak and whether we can pick up those signals automatically, and then
from that analysis of their voice try and raise the alarm that the characteristics of
their voice are outside their normal parameters. So anything we can do that we can try to monitor
and detect these psychological stresses might be very valuable in protecting the health
of the astronaut. On short term space missions, psychological
issues are manageable, but on longer term space mission they can become much more important
and overcoming them will really help us in our quest to travel to the stars.

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