NASA Is Looking For Technologies To Keep Astronauts Healthy On A Mission To Mars

Published on Apr. 06, 2020

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 has turned the global health ecosystem upside down. The best minds worldwide are focused on stopping the spread of this deadly virus, and many organizations and startups are pivoting their technologies so that they can find an answer to a disease that is challenging civilization as we know it. But one day (hopefully, not too distant from the present day), the world will go back to “normal”. In that world, a world in which we’re not facing a global pandemic, one of the most fascinating projects of humanity is the exploration of what’s beyond the Earth’s stratosphere. And an important part of that exploration is the mission to Mars that NASA has been planning for a while now. 

NASA wants to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. The mission to the Red Planet is not a short one. There are actually multiple ways to get to Mars, but NASA’s preferred approach is a conjunction-class mission profile, which would take approximately 210 days to get to Mars,  496 days at the planet, and 210 days to get back. Astronauts will travel to Mars, live and work there and then come back to Earth. 

That means astronauts would spend over 3 years in space, and this poses many challenges related to space health. That’s why NASA’s Human Research Program is partnering with external entities such as the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH). Together, they’re finding answers to potential problems. 

A New Solicitation To Keep Astronauts Healthy

TRISH recently announced a call for proposals for cutting-edge, behavioral health science and technology research that can be adapted to ensure the health and wellbeing of astronauts in deep space. This industry solicitation is open to U.S.-based companies. 

Some of the challenges that this solicitation wants to address are: 

  • Acute stress associated with the dangerous external environment and high-stakes activities (extravehicular activities (EVAs), launch, landing, critical repairs);
  • Extended confinement in an austere environment;
  • Isolation from family, friends and loved ones, including both physical separation and communication time-lags that prohibit real-time interaction; 
  • Disruption of circadian cues that result in bad sleeping patterns;
  • Chronic stress associated with spaceflight, including workload (too high or too low), interpersonal challenges with few effective means of avoidance, loneliness, etc;
  • A potential lack of meaningful work (during long transits);
  • Fluid shifts towards the head;
  • Deep space radiation. 

According to TRISH, the projects they choose “should push boundaries, take risks, and explore long-range vision.” They are particularly interested in ways to address multiple concerns simultaneously, or an integrated suite of capabilities to address multiple concerns. TRISH is seeking new ideas that will help astronauts maintain behavioral health and performance (BHP) over deep space missions lasting up to 3 years (we already talked about behavioral health - take a look at our article explaining everything to know about the mental health of astronauts in space).

“Overall, this [the 3-year trip to Mars] will require a combination of BHP prediction, monitoring, prevention, detection of deterioration or diagnosis of deterioration problems, and countermeasures to help astronauts to correct BHP problems as they manifest or after they have begun,” said representatives from TRISH. “We are not limiting this call to specific topics or technologies—rather, we seek unique ideas that show strong promise for reducing BMed-related risks.”

5 Examples of What TRISH is Looking For

While the solicitation is open to all kinds of topics, we have put together some examples of solutions that TRISH is interested in: 

Unobtrusive monitoring: Solutions that can assess astronauts’ mental health without sensors that require contact or that can be a nuisance for them.

  • Health monitoring and countermeasures: Astronauts are going to be really far from Earth and communication will not be instantaneous. Astronauts need to be as independent as possible. That’s why TRISH is looking for closed-loop solutions that enable monitoring and offering countermeasures in case an astronaut isn’t in his/her peak status.
  • Fighting stress and anxiety: Astronauts are likely to go through mild episodes of depression and anxiety. TRISH is looking for solutions that tackle these problems. 
  • Improving communication with Earth: As we have mentioned before, during spaceflight to Mars, communication with Earth is not synchronous. Delays of 3-22 minutes are to be expected. Any solution that helps mitigate this problem is welcome!
  • Enhancing performance: Brain-computer interfaces for enhancing memory and/or cognitive performance are a good example of solutions that TRISH is interested in. 

Some Things You Need to Keep in Mind

Before you apply, there are several things that you need to know:

  • Resources are extremely limited in space: A long-duration spaceflight such as this has very limited resources. This includes mass, volume, power, and data bandwidth to and from Earth. Connectivity from spacecraft to earth will be asynchronous on a deep space mission. You need to consider all of these limitations!
  • A no-resupply scenario: Your solution should be designed for a scenario with “no resupply capability”. This means that it’s advisable to put emphasis on miniaturized devices and multi-use recyclable supplies.

  • Good UX is key: Astronauts need to perform many tasks and procedures. TRISH is looking for solutions that required limited training (or, ideally, no training at all). If they’re automated, even better!
  • Autonomous health maintenance: Since immediate communication with Earth will not be possible, NASA needs solutions that enable “autonomous” health maintenance and medical management. This means they want to develop closed-loop processes (detection, edge-analytics and generation of recommended actions).