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Occupational Therapy and Space Exploration

By Amruta Kalburge

 

    In the world, three countries, the United States, Russia, and China have human spaceflight capabilities. However, space missions from these three countries have launched many astronauts from 40+ different countries into space. As space missions continue to reach towards the goal of deep space exploration, it will be important to focus on the health and well-being of the astronauts embarking on those journeys. It is worthwhile to consider the role occupational therapy can play in promoting the health and wellness of the spaceflight crew living away from the earth for long durations.


The Risks for Health and Well-being associated with Space Travel


Space travel creates significant changes to the way we understand occupational engagement and occupational participation. For example changing physical factors of clients, their performance skills and patterns, and the significant change to the environmental context. The changes that are seen in humans during prolonged periods in space include strength deficits, balance problems, vision degeneration, diminished attention, impaired executive functioning, delayed motor control, anxiety, depression, and ineffective communication skills. Additionally, the isolation, confinement, and extreme environment (ICE) during space missions lead to sensory deprivation, sleep disturbances, lack of natural opportunities for occupational engagement, and social isolation. Apart from astronauts’ health and well-being, these factors may influence optimal human performance which is critical to safe and successful space missions (Davis et al., 2017).


The Role of Occupational Therapy


    Occupational therapy can play an important role in preventing the degradation of the health and well-being of astronauts by providing self-care training during pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight stages. In addition to neuromuscular, vestibular, and cognitive training, other training areas may involve:

  • Creating a schedule to achieve a balance between work, rest, and sleep

  • Emphasizing sleep hygiene

  • Identifying leisure activities for stress reduction and health promotion

  • Designing personal and flight environments to compensate for sensory deprivation

  • Identifying personal stress responses and developing coping strategies for stress management

  • Finding creative ways for continued engagement in meaningful occupations such as virtual reality

Furthermore, occupational therapists can utilize Person-Environment-Occupation-Performance (PEOP) model to analyze factors that affect human performance during space missions. 


Next Steps: What can you do to get involved in this area of practice?

  1. Support and Contribute toward occupational therapy research by making donations to research foundations/ universities in your area, for example, American Occupational Therapy Foundation (AOTF).

  2. Start a conversation in professional forums on occupational therapy’s role in space exploration. Reflect on your own skillset and how you, as an occupational therapist can contribute toward the health promotion of astronauts. Share your thoughts within your professional network.

  3. Stay up to date on current research on the impact of space exploration on humans.

  4. Make new connections which may open the door for future opportunities in the field of space exploration.


Resources


  1. Joerres, J. (2022). Are occupational therapy practitioners working toward meaningful life on and off the planet earth: A context-based perspective.

  2. Bachman, K. R. O., Otto, C., & Leveton, L. (2012). Countermeasures to mitigate the negative impact of sensory deprivation and social isolation in long-duration space flight. http://techreports.larc.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/NTRS

  3. Leveton, L. B. (2009). American Occupational Therapy Foundation: Behavioral Health and Performance Element: Tools and Technologies. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/api/citations/20090017814/downloads/20090017814.pdf


 

References


Davis, J., Burr, M., Absi, M., Telles, R., & Koh, H. (2017). The contributions of occupational 

science to the readiness of long duration deep space exploration. Work, 56, 31-43.

            https://doi.org/10.3233/WOR-162465


 

Thank you for reading! We are always looking for new perspectives and stories to share. If you want to support our mission, share your stories and resources by getting in touch.



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