NASA replaces Light Fixtures to help Astronauts Sleep Better

A new sunrise takes place every 90 minutes. Docking maneuvers sometimes occur at odd hours. Then there’s that feeling of apparent weightlessness.

No wonder astronauts aboard the International Space Station can have a hard time getting a good night’s sleep.

Now, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University is among those working on a solution: light.

George C. Brainard is advising NASA as it prepares to replace the aging fluorescent lights on the station with high-tech LED fixtures. The lights, which received the agency’s go-ahead earlier this year, can be adjusted to enhance or relax an astronaut’s state of alertness at the appropriate time of day.

The plan is the outgrowth of research by Brainard and others that has established how light plays a powerful role in regulating our various biological clocks. Changes in light exposure can affect sleep, digestion, cognitive performance, and mood — a phenomenon known to people who experience jet lag, night-shift work, or the seasonal blahs associated with the shorter days of winter.

Initially, NASA planned to replace the lights on the space station with LED fixtures purely because they last much longer than fluorescents and are energy efficient. But when Brainard heard about the plan, he and a handful of other experts urged the agency to modify the specifications so that the lights could be a tool for maintaining astronaut health.

“Bud was instrumental” in making the case for the adjustable lights, said NASA flight surgeon Smith Johnston, referring to Brainard by his nickname.

Aboard the station, astronauts average as little as six hours of sleep during a 24-hour period, even though they are allotted 8.5 hours, Johnston said.

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