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Canadian researchers study ‘space culture’ of astronauts on ISS

During his six-month mission aboard the International Space Station beginning in November, 2018, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will conduct two health experiments, including research on the immune systems of astronauts during long-duration missions.

David DeHoyos

Sociology professor Phyllis Johnson says she could never be a good astronaut, explaining, "I'm too short."

But the University of British Columbia academic is contributing to the high-flying work of actual astronauts with an continuing research initiative into what she calls a "space culture" – how astronauts make the International Space Station into a home as it orbits the Earth at about 26,700 kilometres an hour.

Dr. Johnson, working with co-investigator Peter Suedfeld, a UBC psychology professor, has been surveying astronauts on how they live in space as part of a study called At Home in Space, seeking insights that could help in longer missions, but also lead to data relevant to other circumstances on Earth where people live and work in isolated environments.

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On Wednesday, Dr. Johnson was in Montreal as the Canadian Space Agency, which is sponsoring her research, announced further new research to be conducted on the space station.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will conduct two health experiments during his six-month mission beginning in November, 2018.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques is gearing up for a six-month stint on the International Space Station starting in November 2018. He says several medical experiments planned for the mission could yield benefits back on earth. The Canadian Press

He will focus on the health of astronauts, researching the immune systems of astronauts during long-duration missions and also study the impact of weightlessness, radiation, nutrition and physical activity on the cardiovascular system and the onset of insulin resistance in orbit.

Dr. Saint-Jacques is to travel to the ISS aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. He will be the first Canadian, after Chris Hadfield, to join the crew of ISS, normally six astronauts.

Dr. Johnson said she has been conducting her current research since about 2015, but avoided disclosing findings because she does not want to influence astronauts to be surveyed before the program is completed in 2019 or 2020.

In an interview from Montreal, Dr. Johnson said the mission is to look at astronauts from various countries to see how they adapt to living in space, and how they make ISS feel like home.

"What we're trying to find out is, 'Is there a space culture that develops and how are they going about doing that.'"

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The theory is that astronauts develop a kind of shared culture to handle differences while living in the ISS, which NASA material says has about as much space as a six-bedroom house.

Respondents are supposed to fill out surveys before, during and after their missions, and also take photos of their quarters to show how they customize their living space.

While the research goal is to survey 12 to 14 astronauts, Dr. Johnson said she can't say how many have signed on for surveys, nor results.

"Findings for research such as ours are not clear until we have collected data from all of the subjects, and analyzed it from all of the subjects" she said.

She said it isn't possible to talk about social research midway through gathering data. "You could bias your results," she said, referring to the possibility of astronaut research subjects hearing about her comments.

But the research will be helpful for future missions, including future ISS missions, she said.

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Dr. Johnson, who has previously done research on families and also been involved with research on cosmonauts, said she is excited by this project.

"It is trying to find out what is most important to the astronauts who are going to spend five to six months in space, and then extrapolate to what would happen if we went to longer-duration missions," she said.

The research involves five questionnaires, assessing such issues as values, coping with stress and asking about the positive aspects of being in space.

She said one key to the enterprise is having astronauts offer their insights while actually in space.

"When you come back, you look back and forget some of the things that have happened," she said. "'Capture the moment' is exactly what we are trying to do."

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