Mark Rosekind, a psychologist whose research into fatigue in pilots helped shape modern air travel, has been named to a post that would cost many people sleep. Earlier this week, President Barack Obama nominated him to head the embattled National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency has been battered by a series of high-profile failures to quickly catch and fix lethal flaws in car ignition switches and air bags.
Rosekind’s work as a scientist focused on the toll exhaustion takes on human performance in high-stakes situations, including flying airplanes, driving big rigs, and performing surgery. He’s best known for leading research into fatigue among airline pilots in the early 1990s at NASA’s Ames Research Center. He oversaw experiments that wired commercial pilots to portable brain activity detectors (electroencephalographs), then tracked them during flights between the United States and Asia. The studies found that tired pilots suffered repeated “microsleeps” while flying, taking a toll on their performance. It also showed the benefits of brief naps, which became dubbed “NASA naps,” and in-flight sleeping berths. The napping protocol was adopted in much of the world, but not the United States. The beds are now standard on many long-distance flights.
“These studies were pioneering because he was really one of the first scientists to actually record pilot brain activity during long-haul flights,” David Dinges, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine who was involved in the research, told ScienceInsider.