The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA have formed a collaborative arrangement to sponsor basic, applied and operational research, as well as development and training, in extreme polar environments where NSF manages research stations and vessels.

The first research project under what may become a five-year collaboration is scheduled to begin in October at NSF’s McMurdo Station and the program may later expand to NSF’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

That project and future research supported by the collaboration are expected to improve the working environment and medical care available at NSF-managed research stations while at the same time benefiting missions undertaken by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, through which it coordinates all U.S. government-supported science on the southernmost continent and provides the logistical support that makes the science possible. The program operates three year-round stations: Amundsen-Scott South Pole, McMurdo, and Palmer, on the Antarctic Peninsula.

NASA’s Human Research Program enables space exploration by reducing the risks to human health and performance through a focused program of basic, applied, and operational research. This leads to the development and delivery of human health, performance, and habitability standards; countermeasures and risk mitigation solutions; and advanced habitability and medical support technologies.

In addition to the research, both agencies hope to realize practical benefits from the collaboration.

NASA flight surgeons, for example, will rotate through NSF’s Antarctic clinics. This medical collaboration will make additional medical expertise available to the Antarctic Program while affording NASA clinicians the unique opportunity to treat individuals in the polar environment.

The collaboration’s first research project at McMurdo, NSF’s logistics hub on the continent, is designed to measure both the likelihood and performance-based consequences of behavioral health symptoms for human-exploration missions.

Candice Alfano, of the University of Houston, is the principal investigator for the NASA-funded study called “Characterization of Psychological Risk, Overlap with Physical Health, and Associated Performance in Isolated, Confined, Extreme (ICE) Environments.”

Under the study protocols, approximately 110 Antarctic Program volunteers will complete self-administered, computer-based questionnaires, provide saliva samples and wear a monitor to record cycles of rest and activity. The study measures behavioral and biological markers of stress and changes in psychological health while adjusting to the isolated, confined, and extreme environment.

The project’s goal is to develop a checklist to monitor signs and symptoms that a behavioral condition may be developing in isolated individuals or teams, whether in space or in remote regions of the Earth, thus allowing early detection and early intervention. This study provides risk characterization to better understand the likelihood and probability of occurrence for such conditions in isolated confined extreme environments, which will help in the development of effective countermeasures.