Sleeping in Space
Astronauts usually lose about two hours of sleep per day while in orbit.
Courtesy of NASA.
- Length: 45 Minutes
Numerous factors affect the quality of our sleep, and astronauts on space missions experience many disruptions to their normal sleep patterns. Students read about how astronauts sleep in space, relate this information to times they have had difficulty sleeping, and write about unusual places in which they have slept.
This activity is from The Science of Sleep and Daily Rhythms Teacher's Guide, and was designed for students in grades 6–8. Lessons from the guide may be used with other grade levels as deemed appropriate.
Many factors can impact the quality of sleep, and everyone has difficulty sleeping from time to time. Excitement, anxiety or stress, consumption of stimulants or certain foods close to bedtime, unusual surroundings, noises, travel across time zones, or changes in daily schedules can make sleeping difficult. Insomnia—an ongoing inability to get enough sleep to feel rested during the day—occurs when sleep problems extend beyond a night or two. More than 50% of Americans suffer from occasional bouts of insomnia or other sleep disorders.
Astronauts may experience more disruptions of normal sleep patterns than anyone else. The intense work schedule, unusual surroundings, occasional space motion sickness, cramped work quarters, stress, and excitement of being in space all can make it difficult to sleep. In addition, many visual cues on Earth, including the normal 24-hour cycle of light and darkness that provides time cues to the body’s internal clock, are different in space, or absent altogether.
Since lack of sleep can seriously affect performance on physical and mental tasks, it is important to help astronauts overcome sleeping problems. Several days before launching into space, for example, they are exposed to bright lights at specific times, a controlled environment, and programmed meal periods to help reset their bodies’ internal clocks to match the schedules followed in space. Research has shown that it is possible to program humans to a day/night cycle similar to the one on Mars (24.65 Earth hours). Research to help astronauts sleep better also can help people on Earth with similar sleep problems.
Objectives and Standards
Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or external stimulus.
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
The potential for accidents and the existence of hazards impose the need for injury prevention.
Science, Health and Math Skills
Identifying common elements
Making extensions to new situations
Materials and Setup
Materials per Student
Copy of student sheet (see Lesson pdf)
Conduct this activity with the entire class.
Students may read the story, “Sleeping in Space,” individually, or they may work in teams.
Procedure and Extensions
Ask students to remember an occasion when they had difficulty sleeping. Have them share their experiences with the rest of the class, and list the experiences on the board or on an overhead. Scenarios suggested by students might include: the night before an exciting event, such as a birthday party; trying to sleep in the car during a long trip; or being awakened by strange or frightening noises at night.
Encourage students to think carefully about the list and to identify common elements among the events. Such elements could include: sleeping in places other than home; sleeping before or after unusual events; sleeping when one’s physical state is not normal (sick with an itchy rash, etc.).
Mention to students that they will be reading about a situation in which it is very difficult to sleep—being an astronaut in space. Ask, Do you think astronauts can sleep as well in space as they do at home? What might be different about sleeping in space? How do you think the space station environment affects astronauts’ physical and mental performance? How might microgravity—and the feeling of weightlessness experienced while orbiting Earth—affect sleep?
After students have offered their comments, distribute the student sheets.
Students may read the essay and complete the writing extensions on their own or in small groups.
Allow students to share their work by having them read their paragraphs or by displaying their paragraphs somewhere in class.
Conduct a class discussion about the importance of getting enough sleep. Begin by telling students that when you don’t get enough sleep, it can be hard to stay alert, especially if you work at night. Ask, What could happen if someone drives or operates dangerous equipment when he or she is drowsy? Help students understand the connection between sleep and performance on mental or physical tasks.
Have students create drawings to accompany and illustrate their paragraphs on sleeping.
Encourage students to learn more about living and working in space by visiting websites of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (www.nsbri.org) and NASA (www.nasa.gov); and/or have them investigate research on the relationship between sleep and performance at Harvard University’s Healthy Sleep website (http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu).
Scientists are using mathematical models to predict alertness levels for astronauts and airplane pilots under a variety of conditions. These predictions can increase safety by enabling astronauts and pilots to know when they are most prone to mistakes caused by sleepiness. Have students think of other ways we use mathematical models to make predictions (weather predictions, stock market predictions, etc.).
David F. Dinges, PhD, is developing a test that will help astronauts to gauge fatigue and stress during long missions in space (podcast with lessons and more).
Neuroscientist George C. Brainard, PhD, is researching the effects of space flight on circadian rhythms, which will, hopefully, improve the quality of astronauts' sleep (podcast with lessons and more).
Students explore the day/night cycle and seasonal cycles on Earth; create and use sundials; and investigate circadian rhythms, sleep patterns and factors affecting the quality of sleep. (8 activities)
Funded by the following grant(s)
This work was supported by National Space Biomedical Research Institute through NASA cooperative agreement NCC 9-58.