January 7, 2014
How To Fall Asleep In Space
[ Watch the Video: How To Give An Astronaut A Good Night's Sleep ]
Earth helps provide nature’s cues on when to sleep by rotating, creating sunrises and sunsets. However, in space, astronauts experience 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours, so a pattern must be made in order to help them sleep.
[ Watch the Video: From Night to Day to Night Again ]
“Astronauts can suffer sleeping problems in space just as on Earth. Stress, heavy workloads, anxiety, background noise, light and air quality can all upset their body clocks. Minimizing sleep disturbances for astronauts is just one of the goals of the European Astronaut Centre’s medical team,” the European Space Agency wrote in a statement.
Volker Damann, head of the space medicine office, said there are three basic ways to help an astronaut settle into a regular sleeping pattern in space. Crew members onboard the space station have to stick to a tight schedule, working ten hours maximum followed by a sleep period of eight hours. The astronauts abide by a regular eating schedule with breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as relaxation periods, debriefings, privacy times and exercising times.
An ISS crew member’s daily schedule is based on a 24-hour Earth day and is synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. The astronauts work a normal Monday through Friday week, while Saturday is spent on maintenance, cleaning, private time and sometimes more work. Astronauts get Sundays completely off, assuming no emergency situations occur on the space station.
While the astronauts’ schedule tends to be strict, every now and then a situation pops up that disrupts it, such as repairs to the space station, additional science experiments, or hazardous space debris.
Volker said that astronauts do not need chemical aids to help sleep because of their structured routine. However, if a crew member does experience a type of jet-lag, then they may be offered a natural remedy known as melatonin, which helps synchronize internal clocks.
ESA said the space medical community is also experimenting with different colored lighting to try and get the internal clock working.
“Morning and evening sunlight on Earth has more red in it, while bright sunlight during the day has more blue wavelengths, cueing our body for the time ahead,” according to the space agency. “Blue lighting on the Space Station could influence the body to be more alert, whereas red lighting might induce sleep.”
Sleeping medication is an option of last resort, because these drugs are known to cause hangovers and hallucinations, which are not ideal side-effects for astronauts. These drugs are also not easily filtered out of the body, so if an emergency situation occurred then it could cause some issues.
“We do not want astronauts sleeping through fire alarms because they have taken too much,” Volker said in a statement.