First study of civilian space crew charts course for research as commercial flight heats up

Penn Medicine researchers have investigated physiological and mental changes in the Inspiration4 crew, the first all-civilian mission operated by SpaceX.

As a new space race revs up, propelling humans back to the moon and toward a Mars landing for the first time, mysteries remain about the unique pressures of space flight on humans—especially for those blasting off through new commercial space travel operations. For the first time, researchers have data on the physical and psychological impact of spaceflight on an all-civilian crew. The Penn Medicine team’s study of the two-woman, two-man crew (dubbed Inspiration4) lays the foundation for a biomedical database that will be critical for studying and addressing spaceflight health risks for civilian crews, at a time when investment in non-govermental spaceflight continues to grow.

Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Issacman, and Hayley Arcenaux.
Inspiration4 crew: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Issacman, and Hayley Arcenaux. (Image: Inspiration4 / John Kraus)

“Health monitoring during spaceflight has traditionally been reserved for a few highly-selected and highly-trained professionals,” says the study’s co-senior author, Mathias Basner, a professor of psychiatry and director of Behavioral Regulation and Health Section in the Department of Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine. “This marks an important first step in determining the safety of space flight for civilians, at a time when the possibility of space travel is opening up for more people.”

Basner’s team was responsible for monitoring changes in I4 crew physiology and neurobehavioral functioning in response to the spaceflight environment. This included gathering data on things such as heart rate variability and blood oxygen saturation, as well as cognitive performance and ratings of stress and behavioral states.

The crew performed a neurocognitive test battery called Cognition before, during, and after the orbital flight on an Apple iPad with the JoggleResearch app. The test was designed by Penn Medicine researchers for NASA and consists of 10 brief tests that assess diverse aspects of cognition such as memory, risk taking, and attention.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.