Going to Mars

LJMU expert contributes to the activities of the European Space Agency concerning the identification of key factors needed to maintain operational skill in astronauts and reduce accident likelihood during long duration space missions.

By 2020, the European Space Agency (ESA) wants to have conducted a mission to Mars. In 2010 researchers and experts from across Europe were invited to take part in the THESEUS project: Towards human exploration of space, a European strategy with the primary aim of developing an integrated life sciences road map to make this ambitious plan a reality.

A number of challenges were identified by the European Space Agency to look at the physical and psychological impact on astronauts of spending long periods of time in space in order to work effectively and maximise the safety of long duration missions into space. The psychological impact of working and living in space for prolonged periods of time can include boredom/monotony, human-system automation, which is particularly important in order to maintain operational skill and reduce likelihood of accidents. Understanding the limits of skilled performance is especially important in the context of safety-critical behaviour where human error has the potential to cause fatalities.

Researchers from LJMU’s Research Centre in Brain and Behaviour (Psychology and Health Research Group) have a track-record in conducting research with skilled operators, such as HGV drivers and passenger ferry crew, to look at how skill development and complex performance may deteriorate under conditions of duress, such as high mental workload, boredom or sleep deprivation.

They have conducted research using the framework of Operator Functional State (OFS); this describes the psychological capacity of an operator to deliver safe and effective performance. Expertise in OFS theory and methodology was developed at LJMU via studies of driving behaviour and aviation control.

By invitation, the research team contributed to an advanced research workshop which led to the development of a research report into Operational Functional Status Impaired Performance in Complex Work Environments. The report, commissioned by NATO’s Research and Technology Organisation (RTO), focussed specifically on how OFS could be defined and measured in the context of military systems.

This research expertise was applied to the THESEUS project leading to the identification of several key issues for long duration missions into space. These included: skill deterioration during long duration missions and need for on-board training, scheduling and delivery of task training, threats to skill maintenance such as monotony/boredom, isolation, task demand and scheduling of work/rest and sleep/wake patterns in space to prevent impaired performance. These key themes will require additional research and will feed directly into the European Space roadmap to inform operational procedures for space exploration.

Find out more about the research within the Research Centre in Brain and Behaviour.

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