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NASA Gives UCF Grant to Study Astronauts’ Team Effectiveness for Deep Space Missions

NASA has awarded two UCF professors $900,000 to study cognitive issues such as memory and attention in astronauts on lengthy space assignments.

Stephen Fiore and Shawn Burke’s project is one of 27 selected from 18 institutions around the country, which will receive money from a $12 million pool over three years. The projects were selected because NASA is preparing to send astronauts on distant missions, including Mars.

Most of the studies selected will look at space travel’s impact on the human body, including visual impairment, bone and muscle loss, human performance, cardiovascular health, and sensory and motor adaptations, among other issues.

“This is important because studies suggest that cognitive processes may be negatively affected by the spaceflight context,” Fiore said. “So we need to understand how problems with memory or attention will impact the spaceflight team’s ability to function and successfully perform their mission.”

The idea is to mitigate the effects as much as possible, he said.

Fiore, the lead investigator, is director of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory and a faculty member with the cognitive sciences program in the Department of Philosophy and the Institute for Simulation & Training.

Burke is a research professor at the IST specializing in team dynamics and behavior.

Burke said this is just one of several studies they have been working on for NASA that look at team dynamics. The others address issues such as leadership behavior, crew dynamics, impact of confined spaces on these dynamics, and cultural differences. NASA has been funding the grants the past couple of years, she said.

This project is funded by the agency’s Human Research Program and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which seek to answer questions on astronaut health and performance in long-duration space missions. The Human Research Program also plans strategies to monitor and mitigate risks humans may face on missions.

NASA has been pushing to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. That effort would be in preparation to travel to Mars, a planet believed to be capable of hosting life, and possibly beyond.

The goal of the current studies is to better prepare astronauts to manage the mental and physical demands of space travel.

Some of the studies will be conducted aboard the International Space Station, NASA said. Others, including UCF’s studies, will be conducted in settings that mimic the space environment.