EEG Reveals the Stress of Being a Suborbital Space Pilot

A brain floats above the Earth in outer space

As the number of manned suborbital space flights is anticipated to grow, so is the necessity of understanding their impact on the human brain. As it turns out, it’s not easy being a suborbital space pilot, especially when things go awry. This new study out of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University explores the potential of using wireless EEG headsets to monitor the cognitive performance of suborbital pilots in flight. Brainwave activity during suborbital flight simulations revealed cognitive function during emergencies, informing future studies to improve pilot safety.

The findings were published in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education & Research. The author, Erik Seedhouse, PhD, stresses the importance of human factors in a pilot’s safety while flying a suborbital spacecraft (2024).  

Four participants, three male and one female were recruited from the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU) College of Aviation. Participants had a mean age of 20.4. By comparison, the author notes, none of the SpaceShipTwo pilots in 2023 were below the age of 40. Each college student was fitted with an EMOTIV EPOC Series 14-Channel EEG headset and monitored as they conducted a series of flight simulations under normal day and night conditions. The simulation was run again with added contingencies like loss of HUD or engine failure. The author paid particular attention to theta bands that indicate mental fatigue and mental workload during each session.

“A pilot’s cognitive state is a significant factor which may impact their performance while flying a suborbital spacecraft, especially when reacting to a contingency,” writes Seedhouse (2024). “In such an event, a pilot’s reflexes, decision-making, and control of the spacecraft may be influenced by their cognitive state.”

The results allowed Seedhouse to identify the most mentally demanding parts of each suborbital flight simulation. They demonstrated the importance of contextual EEG in human factors research, especially in contingency training.

Seedhouse (2024) hopes this research will be a step towards developing a “cognitive monitoring procedure and neurometric that helps track the neurophysiological workload of suborbital pilots and possibly for pilots in training.”

Figure 2. Note. Suborbital Spaceflight Simulator [Photograph] by E. Seedhouse, n.d. Copyright n.d.by Erik Seedhouse.

“Research on the application of neurophysiology and spaceflight is incomplete and few studies have identified candidate neurometrics of pilot cognitive performance,” said Seedhouse (2024), suggesting that more research be conducted in dynamic simulators and VR environments.

The study concluded that the EPOC Series EEG system is “non-disruptive, is comfortable to wear, and provides cognitive workload accuracy with good resolution.” In addition, participants reported that the headset was comfortable to wear.

EMOTIV Senior Research Scientist Dr. Nik Williams commented on the significance of this pilot study and its implications for the future.

“This pilot study supports the feasibility of EEG neurotech integration into the aerospace industry as a tool for developing safer and more adaptive aviation practices,” said Williams. “By offering personalized training for students and enhanced situational awareness for veterans, non-invasive EEG technology will play a key role in shaping the industry’s future.

“I look forward to follow-up studies that further elucidate these findings with a larger participant sample, more nuanced neural measures of mental workload, and improved experimental design.” 


Seedhouse, E. (2024). Evaluating the Potential of Using EEG to Monitor Cognitive Workload in Simulated Suborbital Flight. Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education & Research, 33(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.58940/2329-258X.1989

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