Microgravity Playscapes: Play in Long-Term Space Missions

By Liapi, Marianthi; Ackermann, Edith | American Journal of Play, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Microgravity Playscapes: Play in Long-Term Space Missions


Liapi, Marianthi, Ackermann, Edith, American Journal of Play


Introduction

S P A C E TRAVEL has long captured the human imagination. The very notion of breaking away from the Earths ultimate constraint of gravity and floating around in weightlessness is inherently playful. Hence the attraction-not just to children but, increasingly, to grown-ups-to embark! Yet, scientists report that living and working for long periods in a confined, isolated microgravity habitat take a toll on those real space travelers, astronauts. In this article, we suggest that play alleviates the boredom, sensory deprivation, confinement, isolation, apathy, and conflict that make up life in a crowded capsule beyond Earths orbit. Levitating in a man-made station adriftin space epitomizes the displacements and disorientation characteristic of play. No surprise, then, that it enthralls both children and astronauts. But we wish to get beyond the fantasy of the dreamy voyager, child or adult, to the current research on ways to keep the reality of prolonged habitation in confined microgravity capsules even tolerable, not to mention enjoyable, despite its psychological and physical hazards. Our argument? Although microgravity presents one of the most playful conditions imaginable, space mission planners so far have failed to weave it through the everyday life of disciplined astronauts, leaving them open to the harmful effects of play deprivation. Considering microgravity a playscape offers space travelers options for a more personalized leisure and highlights the value of play as an experience of pure communication and freedom.

Living in Microgravity-Astronauts, Cosmonauts, Heroes, Humans

Since April 12, 1961, 547 people have traveled to space, at least reaching low Earth orbit, and some of them have reached the surface of the moon. From Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (the first humans to walk on the moon) to Sergei Krikalyov and Gennady Padalka (who spent a world-record eight hundred days in space flight), astronauts report that weightlessness is their single most intense experience. Space program scientists in human research have been examining every feature of the human body, a highly complex living organism that evolved over millennia to survive in a world with light, water, oxygen and, of course, gravity, none of which characterizes space. It is no surprise, then, if everything we ever took for granted regarding human life on Earth had to be "rethought, relearned, and rehearsed" (Roach 2010).

Everyday life in microgravity takes a great toll on the human body. The interior of a space station may be a secure, high-tech environment in which to live, but it is confined and noisy, devoid of fresh air and natural light, lacking any daily or seasonal indication of time passing, and characterized by a perpetual state of free fall. Within this environment, astronauts in long-duration space missions experience the deconditioning of their bodies in five major areas: bone health, muscle function, cardiovascular response, sensorimotor system, and immunology (Kennedy 2009). Their bones become brittle and weak. Their muscles lose mass and grow weak. Their hearts suffer fluid shifts and shrink. Their inner ears do not function as designed and make it hard for them to orient their bodies. And their natural killer cells decrease. So far, mission planners and space-life scientists have managed to tackle the astronauts' physiological adaptation through a series of custom-tailored exercises and training programs, along with personalized medicine, diet, and nutritional supplements. This targeted approach gives astronauts some level of control over the potential deconditioning and guarantees a sense of accomplishment.

At times during a space mission, however, the burden of isolation, the constant threat to life, and the intense workload affect the astronauts' psychosocial conditioning. With their senses deprived by low or monotonous visual, auditory, and tactile input-and given their constant sense of being "on duty" (Suedfeld 1991)-astronauts experience both short-lived and chronic psychophysiological stressors that create numerous behavioral and health issues. …

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