Sleep deprivation is no joke. It can cause lower performance, decreased memory, and even sickness. So, if you spend your life orbiting Earth on a $150B spacecraft, you're going to take sleep seriously. NASA, responding to an epidemic of insomnia, is ready to give the International Space Station (ISS) an LED makeover.
Living in the noisy, high-pressure ISS makes sleep difficult. The result: roughly half of all astronauts, at some point, take sleep medication. It's a quick fix, but it can cause dependency and inhibit astronauts' ability to wake up suddenly for an emergency. You don't want zombie-like astronauts, but you also don't want drug-addicted ones.
NASA's new solution taps into the human brain's response to light cycles. The agency is spending US$11.2 million to outfit the ISS' U.S. section with LED lights. The lights, set to be installed by 2016, simulate nature: blue in the morning, white during the day, and red in the evening.
Tapping into nature?
It's similar to an Earth-bound solution for the winter blues. Light therapy gizmos fight Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) by simulating daylight. The bluish hue tricks the brain into suppressing sleep-inducing melatonin, and increasing energy-producing melanopsin. Reddish LEDs can have the opposite effect, inducing drowsiness. NASA hopes to apply the same principles.
The agency can control the lighting from the ground, or let the astronauts adjust it on site. The system prepares the astronauts for better sleep, but its flexibility opens the door to smoother transitions of working hours.
Will the LEDs lead to better-rested, more focused ISS inhabitants? If so, the results would be difficult to measure, but likely plentiful. But if they fail and insomnia persists, you may hear more the next time NASA's budget is on the table.