NASA plans a new weapon in the fight against space insomnia: high-tech light-emitting diodes to replace the fluorescent bulbs in the U.S. section of the International Space Station.
About half of everyone who flies to space relies on sleep medication, at some point, to get some rest. For $11.2 million, NASA hopes to use the science of light to reduce astronauts' dependency on drugs.
According to NASA flight surgeon Smith Johnston, studies in Anchorage, Alaska showed that hospital staff made more medical errors during the darkest times of the year. The finding demonstrates that people have a day-night cycle that must be respected, even when they're doing the demanding work of space exploration.
"When you have normal light coming through the windows of stores, and schools, and hospitals, people do better. They function better," said Johnston, the lead physician for NASA's wellness program.
Sleep is no trivial matter in space. Astronauts generally get about six hours of shut-eye in orbit despite being allowed 8.5. Demanding schedules and unusual environments are among the factors that cause insomnia.
"The station is noisy, carbon dioxide is high, you don't have a shower, there's a lot of angst because you've got to perform. Imagine if you have a camera on you 24 hours a day," Johnston said.more