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USD Professor to Study Astronaut Wellness for NASA

Moses Ikiugu, Ph.D., OTR/L, professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy Moses Ikiugu, a USD researcher and occupational therapy professor, researches how astronauts can stay healthy during a long trip in space for NASA considerations.

VERMILLION, S.D. – In response to the plans to journey to Mars in the near future, NASA is looking for ways to help astronauts stay physically and mentally healthy during a long and stressful trip. University of South Dakota researcher and occupational therapy professor Moses Ikiugu, Ph.D., O.T.R./L., intends to find the answer to NASA’s problem by conducting a research trial with incoming college freshmen who, Ikiugu argues, have stress levels similar to what astronaut’s experience in space.

“We are hoping, given that freshman students are in transition and experience stress that could be comparable to what astronauts experience during transition to space, the results from our research could inform attempts to develop guidelines that astronauts can use to help them stay healthy in space,” said Ikiugu. “One of the deliverables that we hope to produce in this study is a draft of such guidelines that we can present to NASA for consideration.”

The focus of the research is on the mind and how it can be used as an instrument that human beings can use to shape challenging circumstances in their lives.  

“One way of using the mind instrumentally would be to use a combination of meditation and progressive muscle relaxation and participation in meaningful activities that produce positive moods, and therefore, activate the reward pathways of the brain,” said Ikiugu. “Based on prior research, such occupations would be physically and mentally challenging (stimulating), fun and performed with other people.”

Ikiugu and his fellow researchers understand that astronauts, when in space, cannot perform such activities and that they must find alternatives. The research team has turned to the mirror neuron theory which posits that when a person observes something being done by another person, or even by watching oneself on video, the brain perceives the action as being performed by the person in real time. The effect of observing oneself on video performing an activity is substantively similar to performing the activity in real time.

“The idea is that if astronauts record meaningful and rewarding occupations that they perform with family and friends before they leave, they can watch videos of themselves performing those occupations while in space,” stated Ikiugu. Watching themselves on video, combined with meditation and relaxation will lead to enhanced health and wellbeing.”

This hypothesis will be tested on the research Ikiugu and colleagues are doing with freshmen students over the next two years. Ikiugu and his team will then make the appropriate recommendations to NASA.

“If the results support the hypothesis of effectiveness of our guidelines in enhancing health and wellbeing, we will develop guidelines for training astronauts and present them to NASA for consideration,” said Ikiugu. “In the meantime, we will continue testing our guidelines with a variety of client populations.” 


USD’s School of Health Sciences is a national leader in interprofessional health sciences education. South Dakota’s comprehensive School of Health Sciences develops scholars, practitioners and leaders in health and human services, including addiction counselors, dental hygienists, health science practitioners, medical laboratory scientists, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, physician assistants, public health practitioners and social workers.


Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.


Hanna DeLange
USD News