Human Factors in Space: insights from Dr Nathan Smith

24 June 2016

Following Major Tim Peake’s rerun to Earth we caught up with Dr Nathan Smith,  whose interests focus on psychology in extreme conditions, to ask how we can benefit from understanding human factors in such challenging circumstances. Here’s what he had to say…


Psychology plays a fundamental role in the process of human spaceflight. At all stages, from selection and preparation, to the mission itself, and the post-flight phase, psychology is embedded within the space experience. Selection committees consider factors such as personality and motivation in order to select-out candidates who are not deemed suitable for space missions. During the mission, the extent to which a person can withstand stressors, whether that be danger, monotony, and boredom, has implications for crew safety, health and performance. Equipping individuals with appropriate coping strategies and developing countermeasures to mitigate stress is an obvious priority area for the various space agencies“.

Space Medicine

In the post-flight phase, the transition back to day-to-day life on Earth is expected to hold both benefits and challenges to space travellers, and as such is an important consideration for retaining a healthy and functional crew. Of course, space research is invariably multi-disciplinary and the importance of human factors should not be underestimated. Ensuring optimal human interaction with equipment, and providing comfort within the restricted habitat are pertinent to maintaining performance and psychological health during ever-lengthening missions. Indeed, there is a lot we can learn from psychological research in space and associated analogs. Understanding the type of person who is likely to adjust and function well in the challenging environment of space, may tell us more about the people who are likely to thrive in difficult Earthly environments. This could be people completing expeditions in the higher latitudes and the Greater Ranges, or those having to enter dangerous and dynamic situations in the name of medicine and humanitarian issues.

Nathan is based at the School of Health at the University of Northampton and his research revolves around understanding the utility of analogue environments for the selection of personnel for operating in extreme conditions, specifically, with a focus on personality, stress, coping, and post-expedition adjustment (particularly on growth experiences). He’s recently completed a 48-day hyper-arid 4-man desert expedition as well as from a field study in Antarctica.

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