NASA is very interested in learning exactly how long term space missions affect the human body, and thanks to the experiment involving the Kelly twins, Mark and Scott, NASA might finally have some leads into how exactly long term space missions impact the human body.
Image Credit: NASA
Scott was the ex-astronaut that spent 340 days in space on the International Space Station between 2015 and 2016 before he retired shortly after, while his identical twin brother stayed right here on Earth during the experiment to play the role as a control variable; Mark was a retired NASA astronaut himself.
The goal behind the experiment was to see what kinds of differences would be seen in Scott’s body after spending such a long time in space. Mark was his identical twin, and as a result, NASA had a very good ‘before and after’ variable that they could attribute to the study.
When Scott came back home to Earth after spending so much time on the International Space Station, NASA requested DNA samples, including but not limited to blood samples, from both Mark and Scott so that they could be compared after the fact.
The findings were nothing short of interesting. The telomeres, or the small caps at the ends of their white blood cell chromosomes, were reportedly longer on Scott’s after spending such a long time in space. More importantly, as Scott started to spend more time on Earth following his space mission, the length of his chromosomes’ telomeres is said to have returned to normal size.
For what it was worth, experts thought the exact opposite was going to happen; that Scott’s telomeres would shrink rather than lengthen, so this study was quite the learning experience.
There isn’t yet much insight as to why Scott’s telomeres returned to normal after he returned back to Earth. Citing Nature, they returned to normal “relatively quickly,” and figuring out why this change occurred in the first place could be instrumental to understanding what goes on in the human body while it is in space for long periods of time.
As puzzling as it is, it wasn’t the only difference that was noticed. It was also found that there were significant differences in gene expression signatures in both Mark and Scott. These changes were most noticeable in Scott, which researchers say could have been the result of stress from the many things Scott had to put up with while coping in a micro-gravitational environment that he wasn’t used to.
Much of the research still has yet to be completed, as the study is very much a work in progress at this point in time. Nevertheless, we should expect to see papers some time before the end of this year that go a little more in depth about what was found.
On the other hand, the research is also quite personal, as it deals directly with the genetics of two live men. That said, it’s possible that NASA will have to be selective about what information is released to the public and what isn’t in order to respect the privacy of the two test subjects.
With so many long-term space missions planned for the future, including those of not only the International Space Station, but also for sending astronauts to Mars and even the Moon, it’s important that we gather as much information as possible about the possible long-term negative side effects so that proper combatants can be formulated. This might include the development of new medicines to prevent their bodies from experiencing as many of the negative side effects as possible.
It should be very enlightening to learn more about the information this study will provide to mankind as the research slowly trickles in.