Acute stress has the potential to significantly debilitate human performance, both physically and cognitively. For long-duration space flight, the results of such reduced cognitive performance could be life-threatening, and therefore warrants the creation of behavioral countermeasures for mitigating crew health and performance risks. Currently most emergency training focuses on performance outcomes, but new research should be centered on preventing negative performance outcomes through acute stress management techniques. Traditional training can be effective under predictable conditions, but performance can degrade rapidly if unexpected stressors are introduced. Additionally, the proposed system can serve as a preflight screening measure to help identify individuals who are more likely to perform better in high stress situations. The goal of this experiment, using Virtual Reality (VR) simulated situations, is to reduce acute stress response during space flight using an adaptive inoculation approach. Exposure will be administered gradually and will use a biofeedback system to respond and adapt to individual stress response in a way that promotes learning voluntary physiological control without overwhelming the subject.
Specific aims of this research include:
- Identifying stressors in a microgravity environment;
- Evaluating formal objective methods to measure baseline chronic and acute stress, in-training performance, psychological stress response, physiological stress response, and procedural errors;
- Developing a prototype for graduated stress training;
- Conducting a proof-of-concept of the training program based on NASA’s emergency protocols for the International Space Station (ISS); and
- Establishing guidelines for implementation of the graduated stress training.
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Graduated exposure to acute stressors using VR simulations of fire and depressurization aboard the ISS will be administered to research subjects as a form of inoculation intervention. The training system architecture is designed to detect physiological indicators of the subject’s stress level, adapt the simulated environment (visual and/or auditory) to that stress level, and ultimately promote voluntary control over the subject’s stress response. The research team will recruit 42 participants to participate in the training program at the Adaptive Cognitive Systems Laboratory at Iowa State University. Participants must be in the age range of 26-60. That participants have obtained or currently pursuing an advanced degree in a STEM related field or equivalent years of experience in STEM related industry. The experiment will include an equal balance of half male and half female participants in order to generalize to a large population distribution.
The study will proceed along four main tasks:
Identify Stressors for Training – Based on detailed procedural information, emergency scenarios of fire and sudden depressurization on the ISS will be used to model the stress environment and response. This model will be used to inform the training on the appropriate stressors that do not hinder knowledge acquisition.
Develop Adaptation and Training Module Logic - The adaptation is based upon an implicit biofeedback model consisting of physiological signals exceeding an established threshold and triggering a stress response. The research team will explore the adaptation of space flight stressors which may include adapting the time needed to remedy the emergency, the rate of smoke emission, the rate of depressurization, or the availability of protective resources and crewmember/ground support.
Implement Prototype Training System –VR simulations will be programmed to collect real-time physiological stress data which then directly transfers that data to the Unity game engine via User Data Protocol (UDP) connection to adapt the training scenario. The simulation will be based on an ISS safety case study and will be focused primarily on emergency protocol in the event of a fire. Locomotion in microgravity environment will also be integrated into the program.
Humans-in-the-Loop (HITL) Experiment – The human subject component of the study will be a 2 x 5 mixed design, where 2 indicates the type independent variable of adaptation (adapted or unadapted) and 5 indicates the number of training sessions. The user interacts with the simulated environment using a head mounted display (HMD) and position-tracked hand controllers. Evaluation of the stress response will be elucidated using the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), as well autonomic data that includes heart rate, total peripheral response, and the total number of procedural errors the subject performed.
The study is still in progress, results will be made available at a later date.
Crew health and performance is critical to successful human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
The Human Research Program (HRP) investigates and mitigates the highest risks to human health
and performance, providing essential countermeasures and technologies for human space exploration.
Risks include physiological and performance effects from hazards such as radiation, altered gravity,
and hostile environments, as well as unique challenges in medical support, human factors,
and behavioral health support. The HRP utilizes an Integrated Research Plan (IRP) to identify
the approach and research activities planned to address these risks, which are assigned to specific
Elements within the program. The Human Research Roadmap is the web-based tool for communicating the IRP content.
The Human Research Roadmap is located at: https://humanresearchroadmap.nasa.gov/
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for information of how this experiment is contributing to the HRP's path for risk reduction.