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Earth from Inspiration4
Earth from Inspiration4. Credit: Inspiration4 crew

PHILADELPHIA— As a new space race revs up, propelling humans back to the moon and toward a Mars landing for the first time, mysteries remain about the unique pressures of space flight on humans – especially for those blasting off through new commercial space travel operations. For the first time, researchers have data on the physical and psychological impact of spaceflight on an all-civilian crew. The Penn Medicine team’s study of the two-woman, two-man crew (dubbed Inspiration4) lays the foundation for a biomedical database that will be critical for studying and addressing spaceflight health risks for civilian crews, at a time when investment in non-govermental spaceflight continues to grow.

“Health monitoring during spaceflight has traditionally been reserved for a few highly-selected and highly-trained professionals,” said the study’s co-senior author, Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, a professor of Psychiatry and Director of Behavioral Regulation and Health Section in the Department of Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “This marks an important first step in determining the safety of space flight for civilians, at a time when the possibility of space travel is opening up for more people.”  

Basner’s team was responsible for monitoring changes in I4 crew physiology and neurobehavioral functioning in response to the spaceflight environment. This included gathering data on things such as heart rate variability and blood oxygen saturation, as well as cognitive performance and ratings of stress and behavioral states.

Inspitarion4 crew, Chris Sembroski, Dr. Sian Proctor, Jared Issacman and Hayley Arcenaux (L-to-R)
Inspitarion4 crew, Chris Sembroski, Dr. Sian Proctor, Jared Issacman and Hayley Arcenaux (L-to-R). Credit: Inspiration4 / John Kraus

The research team investigated the I4 crew on their three-day mission, which launched from Kennedy Space Center in September 2021 on the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The crew reached nearly 367 miles above the Earth, beyond the International Space Station and the furthest humans have been to space since the Gemini program, which ran during the mid-1960s. The I4 crew spent their time in low Earth orbit (LEO) and faced the same hazards of spaceflight as astronauts, such as galactic radiation exposure, altered gravity fields, and isolation and confinement.

The crew performed a neurocognitive test battery called Cognition before, during, and after the orbital flight on an Apple iPad with the JoggleResearch app. The test was designed by Penn Medicine researchers for NASA and consists of 10 brief tests that assess diverse aspects of cognition such as memory, risk taking, and attention. The crew also wore an Apple watch to gather information on movement activity, sleep, and cardiovascular reactions, and repeatedly filled out a brief alertness and mood survey.

I4 crew exhibited performance deficits on three cognitive tests in-flight, primarily involving attention, visual search, working memory, and sensorimotor speed. Cardiovascular changes were modest and similar to what the researchers expected, as the heart beats slower, not having to work against Earth’s gravity vector in the microgravity environment of space. Crew mood and alertness remained stable in-flight and they reported no conflicts amongst the crew. Almost all of the cardiovascular and neurobehavioral changes the research team observed returned to pre-flight levels after returning to Earth, which is consistent with findings from the other I4 research projects.

“As the capacity for humans to reach space expands, we hope this will serve as an important benchmark for how their mental, emotional and physical well-being will be impacted,” added lead co-first author Christopher W. Jones, PhD, a research assistant professor of Psychiatry.

The Penn Medicine research was supported by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) through NASA NNX16AO69A. Funding for the project was also provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).


Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, excellence in patient care, and community service. The organization consists of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school.

The Perelman School of Medicine is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $550 million awarded in the 2022 fiscal year. Home to a proud history of “firsts” in medicine, Penn Medicine teams have pioneered discoveries and innovations that have shaped modern medicine, including recent breakthroughs such as CAR T cell therapy for cancer and the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities stretch from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore. These include the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Health, Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and Pennsylvania Hospital—the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is an $11.1 billion enterprise powered by more than 49,000 talented faculty and staff.

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