Space travelers will endure many challenges as they embark on future long-duration missions beyond low Earth orbit. They will face isolation, confinement, a closed environment, space radiation, and long-duration microgravity. We know that the human body is impacted by these deleterious effects of spaceflight, and International Space Station (ISS) research over the last fifteen years has led to a basic understanding of these effects, as well as the efficacy of mitigations. One less studied area of spaceflight performance is fine motor skills. These skills involve the integration of visual information and coordination of muscles, bones, and nerves to produce small, precise movements of the small muscle groups of the hands and fingers. Fine motor skills will be critical for interacting with hardware and software-based controls to perform a variety of tasks such as information access, just-in-time training, subsystem maintenance, and medical treatment, among others. Fine motor skills are also critical for tasks involving hand controllers – flying a space vehicle, or teleoperating a robotic arm.
In the Effects of Long-duration Microgravity on Fine Motor Control Skills flight study, subjects completed a set of fine motor tasks on an iPad computer, with a stylus and finger. The tasks included: Pointing, Dragging, Shape Tracing, and Pinch-Rotate. Response times and errors for each task were captured and sent to the International Space Station (ISS) server for downlink once a week. Subjects performed the task approximately once a week for the first 3 months of the flight, and every 14 days for the remainder of the flight. Due to postflight crew time constraints, a short version of the Fine Motor Skills test battery (5 minutes) was used for the early postflight data sessions. The short sessions were completed on landing day (Return +0), R+1, and R+3, and regular-length sessions (15 min) were completed on R+5, R+15, and R+30. The study included two one-year subjects and seven standard duration (six-month) astronauts. Eight ground-matched subjects completed the study with the same schedule as the flight crew, lagged by a few weeks.
The Fine Motor Skills flight study was completed in 2018. Due to some technical issues with the data from the one-year mission, formal analyses have been focused on data from the seven standard duration subjects. Statistical analyses were performed to identify effects of long-duration microgravity on inflight fine motor performance, and effects of gravity-related transitions on fine motor performance. Results have implications for crew activities that must be completed with accuracy soon after landing on a planetary surface. Results are currently being prepared for submittal to a technical journal.