Faces in Space

Faces in Space

Almost everyone suffers from job stress at one time or another. But for people like pilots, air traffic controllers, and trauma surgeons, the consequences of stress can be dire or even deadly. And if NASA ever sends humans to Mars, the five hundred day voyage is sure to prove especially taxing. In this report, you'll hear about a proposed system to spot signs of burnout on marathon space flights.


Detecting job stress in deep space. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Imagine being locked up with your co-workers for seventeen straight months. It's enough to drive anyone to distraction. But that's precisely what astronauts on a long voyage to Mars would have to endure.

David Dinges is head of the Experimental Psychiatry Unit at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He says that NASA is concerned that stress on long missions could affect the astronauts' performance. So he and his colleagues are developing a computer system that scans for subtle signs of stress in a person's face.


In other words, we're just simply trying to say can a computer do a lot better than a human or than chance?

Using the face as an indicator is just one of many ideas. But Dinges says that some kind of on-board detector will be important, because communication with earth will be painfully slow.


Transmission from earth takes 24 minutes. And so you say 'hello' and then they say 'hello' back and so now it's 48 minutes, and you've managed to say 'hello.' What that means is, we're not going to be able to do transmission of information that gives us an immediate online evaluation of behavioral capability.

The hope is that stressed-out astronauts can be spotted and treated before they make critical errors. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

Talk about a long road trip: A manned voyage to Mars would take well over a year, and there's no stopping for ice cream on the way. And the idea of sending human beings millions of miles from home opens up all kinds of questions: What happens to the body when it's weightless for so long? What if the astronauts get sick? What if they need surgery? And what if they just flat-out want to kill each other?

Cooping someone up in a spacecraft for as long as a full term in Congress is certainly an extremely stressful situation. And too much job stress while you're piloting an interplanetary spacecraft could have deadly consequences. Many different researchers have been assigned the problem of detecting and dealing with stress in space; Dinges' team is just one of them.

So how is he building this system? First, he gives people a simple task to do—like a puzzle or a brainteaser. Some are easy, while some are devilishly hard. While they're doing the tasks, subjects are told that they need to follow certain rules. In some cases, the rules are easy; in others, they're almost impossible to keep track of, and even the slightest mistake results in harsh criticism.

You'll probably guess that the people doing difficult challenges under intense pressure get more stressed-out. Dinges' team knows this; in fact, it's been scientifically proven, using physical measures like blood pressure and sweating. His team's goal is to teach a computer how to recognize stress in people. So they take pictures of a person's face under high and low stress, and feed them into a computer along with ratings of how stressed the people really were. The computer analyzes the shape of the faces—every knot, frown, and wrinkle—and boils it down to a mathematical formula. Finally, once the computer has a large enough bank of expressions from a single person, it's asked to use what it's learned to recognize new facial expressions and rate how stressed the person probably was.

The goal is to develop a computer system that's at least as accurate as a human in judging facial stress. Hopefully, it could be even more accurate, since it would measure stress objectively and wouldn't be affected by its own mood or its opinion of the person.

If the system works in the lab, they'll eventually test it out in a simulated spacecraft at NASA's Johnson Space Center. What happens when the computer detects stress in a person is still up for debate. Obviously, you can't kick anyone out of a spaceship, so the stress would have to be detected long before it got out of hand. It's hoped that a break from work and simple stress remedies will help prevent total burnout. Weightless yoga, anyone?

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is the long-term goal of Dinges' work? What is the immediate goal?
  2. Describe how his team is teaching the computer system to recognize stress.
  3. What other approaches would you suggest for detecting and alleviating stress on long-term space missions?
  4. What other challenges are involved in sending humans into space for such a long time?

For Educators

This research, and other studies like it, is sponsored by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab has this overview of the Mars exploration program.

The article, Health Risks Pose Hurdle for Travel to Mars discusses the potential health hazards of long-term space flight.

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