Student Features

To Sleep or Not to Sleep
06.14.03
Think about this -- the excitement of blasting off from the Earth in a powerful rocket -- the strange feeling of the free-fall of low-gravity -- nights that last only 90 minutes. Who could sleep with conditions like that?! Astronaut Sleeping

On Earth, we have all heard we must get our "beauty sleep." Eight hours a night is supposed to be the usual length of time we must sleep to feel rested and ready to go the next day.

While in space, astronauts need their beauty sleep too. Many astronauts have to take pills to help them sleep. In fact, sleeping pills make up almost half of all the medicines used while in space.

Even with the help of medicines, Shuttle astronauts don't get as much sleep a night as they usually do while on Earth.

Not having enough sleep can show up in a lot of ways. It mainly affects how well we work, but it can also cause other problems. All of the problems together can spell "accidents"! People on Earth can get a good night's sleep and the problems usually go away. Astronauts, however, have to keep working, day after day, losing an hour or two of sleep every night.

Our bodies control sleep with a master clock in our brains. This time clock controls many things in our bodies, not just sleep. Our time clocks are set every day as we go into the light during the daytime and have darkness fall at nights. earth horizon from space

We would like to learn how to improve both our hours of sleep and our hours of being awake. To do this, we need to study how we sleep and the things that affect it.

In space, astronauts have daylight and darkness change every 45 minutes. This fast changing between the two, messes up their clocks. Sometimes, they need help to sleep when they are supposed to and help to be wide awake at the right times too. Astronauts walking in space

There are two very important parts of a mission when astronauts need to be especially wide awake -- launch and landing. Astronauts get ready for launch even before their mission starts. NASA exposes them to bright lights for a number of days before their launch time so they'll be fully awake when the time comes. They also have to be wide awake for landing. NASA wakes them earlier and earlier on the days before landing so they're ready for this too.

All the things that affect our sleep can be studied in space because of the special environment. Temperature, noise, light, dark, color, and length of a day are some of the things we can study. Dr. Wright suggests that space "provides us with a unique opportunity to understand something more about the functions of sleep."

To help study the causes and effects of sleep, NASA has made special things for astronauts to wear on their wrists that keep up with sleep patterns along with light exposures. Many other things are reported too. Also, astronauts keep "sleep diaries" to help the scientists understand the reported information. Activity Monitor

The information from the astronauts' sleep patterns and diaries help scientists find medicines and ways to help us sleep better and make us more alert while we are awake.

Everyone can be helped from this research. Some of us need to sleep better and some of us need to be awake better. This is an exciting area of research, Dr. Wright explains. Everyone sleeps! The results could provide all of us with what many of us need -- a good night's rest!

Author: Rosemary Wilson
Source: Science@NASA: Wide Awake in Outer Space