Academic journal article Human Factors

Dual-Task Performance in Space: Results from a Single-Case Study during a Short-Term Space Mission

Academic journal article Human Factors

Dual-Task Performance in Space: Results from a Single-Case Study during a Short-Term Space Mission

Article excerpt


Since April 12, 1961, when Juri Gagarin became the first human in space, the space environment has become one of the most exciting and extreme working environments for humans. Unquestionably staying and working in space involves exposure to many different stressors, all of which may adversely affect the mental and emotional state of astronauts (Christensen and Talbot, 1986; Kanas, 1985; Manzey, Schiewe, and Fassbender, 1995). At least four classes of stressors might be differentiated during space-flights:

1. stressors arising from the space environment, of which the most pronounced is microgravity, which causes several physiological changes (e.g., space motion sickness; Thornton, Moore, Pool, and Vanderploeg, 1987) and demands a readjustment of perceptual-motor skills (Parker, Reschke, and Aldrich, 1989);

2. stressors originating from the space habitat and its life-support system (e.g., confinement, elevated noise level);

3. stressors related to the mission-specific workload of astronauts (e.g., high physical and mental demands caused by extensive experimental programs or extravehicular activities); and

4. stressors related to the sociopsychological situation aboard the space habitat (e.g., lack of privacy, isolation from family and friends, restricted social contacts).

Although effects of the fourth class of stressors may be expected to emerge only after some weeks in space (Grigoriev, Kozerenko, and Myasnikov, 1985), the first three classes of stressors may affect the performance of astronauts during both short-term and long-term space missions. During short-term spaceflights, the effects of microgravity, fatigue (caused by, for example, sleep disturbances and changes of circadian rhythm; Gundel, Nalishiti, Reucher, Vejvoda, and Zulley, 1993; Santy, Kapanka, Davis, and Stewart, 1988), and (usually) high mental workload might be expected to have detrimental effects on the human information-processing system. Such effects in turn may lead to considerable disturbances of human performance. However, for the last 25 years, human factors research in space has largely been limited to investigating the biomedical aspects of human adaptation to microgravity (Nicogossian, Huntoon, and Pool, 1989). The psychological impact of the space environment and, in particular, its impact on cognitive, psychomotor, and attentional processes have rarely been systematically researched (Christensen and Talbot, 1986; Taylor, 1989).

Two factors might be largely responsible for this lack of behaviorally oriented human factors research in space. First, similar to environmental stress research in other field settings, research in space usually suffers from several methodological constraints in experimental design. Typically the impact of the space environment on the human organism must be evaluated on the basis of small subject samples or even single-case data. Lacking an appropriate normative database, this presents some difficulties for the statistical evaluation of human performance data. In particular, such difficulties arise because there are few experiences to refer to when applying single-case statistical methods to the performance measures usually used in human factors research (e.g., Carter, 1984; Lorenz, 1994; Shehab, 1995).

Further methodological constraints concern the selection of appropriate performance tasks. Human factors research in space requires standardized tasks that are suitable for self-administration, can be applied under the conditions of microgravity, and, nevertheless, provide reliable and valid performance measures. Moreover, tasks should be used that fulfill the (statistical) demands of repeated-measures applications (Bittner, Carter, Kennedy, Harbeson, and Krause, 1986), in order to make it possible to evaluate the time course of the functional state of the human information-processing system throughout a space mission. A comprehensive, empirical database that could guide selection of such tasks for human factors research in extreme environments has not been available. …

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