Astronauts, it was recognised, were and still are subjected to a multitude of obvious and hidden stresses during spaceflight, including isolation, lack of privacy, confinement, fatigue and varying work-sleep cycles. Workers placed under similar stresses on Earth are known to suffer from degraded cognitive performance over time and the PAWS tasks were intended to identify these during the course of several long-duration Shuttle missions. On a daily basis, Columbia's crew participated in performance tests on a laptop computer, which monitored the speed and accuracy of their responses to rotated images, letter sequences, calculations, patterns and recollection of numbers.

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