Space exploration is big. In the media and movies it is sensationalized. Movies such as Interstellar, The Martian and Gravity were big blockbuster hits at the silver screen. (I personally saw and enjoyed 2 of 3.) Startup companies like SpaceX, the private space exploration company, and their founder, the genius billionaire Elon Musk, are glamorized by the media. Living in space has always been a popular idea. Perhaps like never before, it is sounding less like fiction and more possible. Most people now believe that one day we will live on Mars or in space. When SpaceX talks about “settling Mars” people take them seriously. Recently, Congress passed a bill ordering NASA to spend at least 55 million dollars to create a space habitat by the year 2018. As we are preparing to explore space, remembering some of the problems with former missions like the challenger disaster in 1986 is important to prevent future failures.

Space exploration is hard

Space exploration requires precision as SpaceX has learned. Their unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launch exploded shortly after its launch on June 28, 2015. This was following several successful missions. Space exploration requires team work and high-level functioning. With the big push we are experiencing in space exploration, sleep should not be ignored or forgotten. The SpaceX explosion reminds me of another more infamous day in the history of space exploration and the United States.

Challenger Disaster

I had just completed my first semester of the first grade when I heard about it. The space shuttle Challenger ended in a fiery explosion only seconds after its January 1986 launch.  Word of the challenger disaster was everywhere. It was all over the news. Teachers, students–even first graders and President Reagan talked about the challenger disaster. The nation was stunned. According to the Presidential Commission report on the accident, sleep deprivation was at least partially responsible. It went on to say, “The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake.”

Sleep apnea & sleep deprivation

Sleep apnea is a major cause of sleep deprivation.1 Most people think of sleep deprivation as not getting enough sleep. If you get your 7 or 8 hours of sleep then your good, right? WRONG! Sleep deprivation can also take place when you lack enough quality sleep. This means sleeping well and benefiting from the different stages of sleep your body needs provides a restorative sleep. Good sleep is essential for maintaining concentration. It also contributes to improved memory, problem solving skills and faster reaction time. What gets in the way of quality sleep? Sleep apnea does. It is a major reversible cause of sleep deprivation.

Stopping the next Challenger

Preventing future disasters requires recalling the mistakes made in past accidents. Not repeating the same mistakes is essential. It is definitely important to ensure every one gets enough sleep. There should also be a focus on quality sleep. I would recommend screening all employees in critical roles for sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. This would involve every one involved in space exploration, pilots, engineers and support staff. Doing so can ensure precision and that can make the difference between catastrophe and mission success.


1. Sleep deprivation is defined here both quantitative and qualitatively. In other words it is referred to here as a lack of quality sleep. Some classifications of sleep deprivation, define a disorder of sleep deprivation from a quantitative standpoint and in the absence of other sleep disorders.