‘Sleep deprivation puts astronauts’ lives in danger’

Lack of sleep was one of the many hazards of space travel not explored in the blockbuster movie Gravity.

‘Sleep deprivation puts astronauts’ lives in danger’

Yet a new study has found many astronauts suffer serious levels of sleep deprivation that could be putting their lives in danger.

Scientists studied the sleep patterns of 64 astronauts on 80 space shuttle missions and 21 International Space Station (ISS) crew members before, during, and after spaceflight.

They found that on average, astronauts snatch less than six hours sleep on orbiting space shuttles and just over six hours on ISS missions. This was despite Nasa scheduling 8.5 hours of sleep per night for space-travelling astronauts.

Around three-quarters of astronauts also resorted to sleeping pills during spaceflight, raising concerns about the effect the drugs may be having on their performance.

Dr Laura Barger, from Harvard Medical School in Boston, US, who led the study reported in the journal The Lancet Neurology, said: “Sleep deficiency is pervasive among crew members.

“It’s clear that more effective measures are needed to promote adequate sleep in crew members, both during training and spaceflight, as sleep deficiency has been associated with performance decrements in numerous laboratory and field-based studies.”

Dr Barger also pointed out that government health guidelines warned patients taking sleeping pills not to engage in hazardous occupations requiring a high degree of mental alertness and co-ordination.

“This consideration is especially important because all crew members on a given mission may be under the influence of a sleep- promoting medication at the same time,” she said.

The Apollo astronauts who flew to the moon in the 1970s complained that their sleep was interrupted by light, noise, and the cooling systems in space suits. But sleep disturbance continues to affect astronauts despite the quiet and dark “sleep stations” on the ISS, leading some scientists to speculate microgravity may be to blame.

However, the research showed that sleep deficiency began to build up in astronauts long before a mission launch. On average, crew members got less than 6.5 hours sleep a night during training some three months before taking off into space — about half an hour less than the average American adult. After missions ended, at least half slept like babies.

Dr Mathias Basner from the University of Pennsylvania, stressed the need for more research. “Studies of the physiology of sleep stages and the intensity of sleep... in space are necessary to answer the important question of whether spaceflight reduces the need for sleep and therefore the ability to sleep, or whether it reduces the ability to sleep but not the need for sleep.”

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