Throughout history, humans have utilized their incredible intelligence to adapt and flourish in various environments. From traversing oceans to conquering mountains, we have developed technologies to explore and thrive in the unknown. However, human spaceflight presents a unique challenge that requires new strategies to ensure safety and optimize performance. The same methods that have allowed us to succeed on Earth may not translate directly into space exploration. Therefore, we must develop innovative approaches to overcome novel challenges and achieve success in long-duration space exploration missions. 

Since Yuri Gagarin’s historic spaceflight in 1961, the potential for humans to explore beyond our planet has led to significant advancements. Today, both government and commercial space operations are continuing to evolve and expand. As we expand our reach into space, it is crucial to prioritize human factors engineering and human performance in the design of technologies, training and operational procedures. It is critical that the things that make us physically, mentally, socially, psychologically and emotionally human are considered early during system design. When taken seriously, these human attributes can be leveraged to reduce overall operations and maintenance costs, minimize accidents and incidents that negatively impact safety, and improve the effectiveness of the combined human-technology system for achieving mission outcomes.

Leading the charge is the discipline of human factors and ergonomics (HF/E). HF/E is a field that uses a systems approach to help us understand how to design and optimize the spaces in which we live, work and play. This entails understanding how our bodies, minds and behavior interact with the environment, including complex manmade systems, to improve performance, prevent errors and enhance safety. 

In the medical field, for example, HF/E influences the architecture of hospitals, the check-in procedure for patients, how the operation room is set up, how patient information is handed off between medical personnel, how the nurses should move or position patients, the steps in a surgical procedure, what shape the scalpel handle should be based on the size of the surgeon’s hands, what angle the blade should take for the specific procedure and so on. In spaceflight, HF/E impacts everything from the layout of a spacecraft’s control board to the design of an astronaut’s spacesuit to optimize safety, performance, and — especially important in long missions — comfort. 

It is critical that the things that make us physically, mentally, socially, psychologically and emotionally human are considered early during system design.

Recent decades have seen an acceleration in the development of HF/E, with a surge in research committed to understanding the impact of space environments on human safety and performance. This emphasis accompanies a new era of technological sophistication designed to mitigate risks associated with human spaceflight. 

As space programs and priorities change, new challenges will arise that even experienced space explorers may not have encountered. These include interacting with artificial intelligence and more autonomous software systems, managing greater delays in communications with Earth that necessitate greater crew independence and agile decision-making, facing unforeseen events in new, unexplored environments, and mitigating the increased physiological, psychological, psychosocial, and environmental interface challenges in long-duration spaceflight. 

In recent years, academics have published numerous research studies in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society that aim to address these challenges.

For instance, scientists have been hard at work determining how physiological issues, such as extended durations of microgravity, affect the human body and physical fitness. Published studies describe the effect of microgravity and transitions among gravity levels on fine motor skills, examine how simulated extravehicular activities affect brain function, assess spacesuit center of gravity, and examine anthropometric changes (such as changes to measurements and proportions of the human body) due to microgravity exposure.

Other recent studies published in Human Factors tackle the behavioral and psychological aspects of spaceflight operations.

One 2022 study discussed how certain unobtrusive measures can assess trust, mental workload and situational awareness, another evaluated sleepiness, performance and workload among operators during a real-time reactive telerobotic lunar mission simulation. One paper developed a proof-of-concept for a lexical approach to detecting and assessing stress during operations, another studied team behavior and crew autonomy with simulated medical emergencies on long-duration space exploration missions, and then there’s a study I coauthored that identified problems in asynchronous (time-delayed) space-ground communication and created procedural protocols as countermeasures.

Considerations for human spaceflight

A rapidly growing list of government and commercial entities have active proposals for extended operations in low Earth orbit (LEO), as well as missions to the moon and even Mars. These represent some of the most challenging endeavors our species has ever attempted. It is crucial that we never forget or diminish the human aspect of space travel. 

To address these issues and more, The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) provided five recommendations for all NASA and commercial space programs: 

Human-System Integration processes and standards: NASA should require the application of Human-System Integration (HSI) processes and standards in all system development programs. This should include the procurement of systems and services from commercial space companies that involve human operators or maintainers, and in the flight certification of all vehicles that contain human occupants, including the latest version of the Space Flight Human-System Standard, and the Human Integration Design Handbook. This includes those featuring AI and autonomous systems, which pose special human-system interaction considerations.

Human Readiness Levels: All programs supporting the development, acquisition, or procurement of services involving crewed space vehicles and habitats should be required to report to NASA the Human Readiness Level (HRL) of their systems on an annual basis. The HRL should be used to identify deficiencies and areas where additional attention to human-system integration is warranted to reduce risks to program schedules and human safety and effectiveness. HRLs also provide a useful correlation to Technology Readiness Levels

Safety reporting system: Companies developing systems for operations in space should be required to maintain an active safety management and confidential safety reporting system for employees, consistent with the standards and recommended practices contained in Annex 19 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation. This is important for avoiding problems and declines in safety culture that were significant contributors to the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

Personnel: Qualified HSI professionals, including those with expertise in human factors from government or private space operators, should be assigned responsibility for the conduct or oversight of HSI activities related to crewed spaceflight for human operators, mission controllers, system maintenance personnel and occupants.

Conduct research to develop best practices and standards: NASA should be directed to increase research efforts (through its centers, academic institutions, contractors, or some mixture of all three) on new and emerging technologies and issues that may affect the safe performance of new space missions. Current research on these topics has been minimal to date. This increased research focus should be appropriately funded and specifically examine human interaction with autonomous software systems, team performance on long-distance space missions, fitness for duty qualifications and HSI across systems-of-systems for long-duration space missions.

The culmination of these studies, advancements and recommendations will form the bedrock of contemporary space operations and the continued exploration of human potential within this challenging frontier. 

We are explorers by nature; to say we have lofty ambitions is a gross understatement. Eventually, we want to live among the stars, and focusing on the human aspects of human spaceflight will allow us to get there. 

Kathleen Mosier, emeritus professor of psychology from San Francisco State University, is a former president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and of the International Ergonomics Association. She is the founder and principal scientist of TeamScape LLC, a company dedicated to research on teams in aerospace systems. Mosier has been conducting research on expert teams, decision making, communication, automation and cognition for over 35 years. Mosier’s research in space operations examines the impact of operational variables such as communication latency and crew autonomy in long-duration missions on remote (space-ground) teams.

Kathleen Mosier, emeritus professor of psychology from San Francisco State University, is a former president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and of the International Ergonomics Association. She is the founder and principal scientist of TeamScape...