NASA Looks to 'Happy' Space Suits to Combat Astronaut Sadness

A team from Florida Polytechnic University is being funded by NASA to develop sensors to monitor astronauts' moods.

Being alone in space -- it's one of the biggest sci-fi movie fears. The Alien franchise, Gravity, and Life all tap into the concept that being alone in space could be one of the most depressing possibilities that could happen to an astronaut.

A team of researchers and engineers want to make sure that isn't a possibility for astronauts in real life. 

A group from Florida Polytechnic University are working on an interactive technology called "Smart Sensory Skin" (S3). The gadgets would use wireless sensors to monitor physical and emotional changes and adjust their environments to accomodate for those potentially harmful mood swings. 

In response, the sensors could lead to a change in temperature, reducing an astronaut's exposure to light, or even how much oxygen one gets. 

Arman Sargolzaei and Melba Horton partnered with student James Holland in development of this new technology. 

“It’s vital for astronauts to be mentally healthy during missions and right now there’s no active, real-time solution to help them when they feel stressed or anxious,” said Sargolzaei, professor of Electrical Engineering at the university.

“This technology would provide them with immediate relief to their state of mind,” Sargolzaei added.

Eventually, the final product will be sensors embedded throughout an astronaut's suit. This way, ground control could also monitor things like heart rate, blood pressure, and potential fluid build up around joints.

While ground controls currently have ways to measure these issues currently, those technologies are often inefficient when compared with the streamlined sensor system proposed by the Florida Polytechnic team.

“This project started as an assignment when I was a freshman, and I never expected it to grow the way it has,” said Holland, a junior from Land O’ Lakes, Florida. “I’m excited to see what we can accomplish as our research continues.”

Depression is a major problem in space

Depression is a substantially bigger problem for astronauts than people realize. Most famously, it affected the crew on Russia's Mir space station. A study done by University of California-San Francisco revealed that the imbalance of two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut led to a third-wheel syndrome. 

“In multicultural crews, especially small crews, one has to pay a lot of attention to the culture and language background of the people involved,” Nick Kanas, a UCSF professor of psychiatry, said in an interview with ABC News. “A single person who is different from the other two can feel isolated.”

Space

Future Spacesuits Could Have a 'Take-Me-Home' Button

And in the tight quarters of international stations, that isolation can be multiplied in the vastness of space. This is something NASA has been striving to address especially with longer stays aboard the ISS and crewed missions to Mars on the horizon. 

“One of the things we’re recommending in the future is that crews be alerted to this before they fly … that there are mechanisms for crew members to look at how they are relating in space," said Kanas. 

The S3 project is currently being funded in part by NASA's Florida Space Research Program with the final goal of the project being to make astronauts mentally happier and healthier.