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Today Wired.com (among others) published an article “Are Humans Fit for Space? A ‘Herculean’ Study Says Maybe Not” which summarizes NASA’s Twins Study which was published in Science (The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight).
In space, fluids won’t drain, and astronauts develop red, puffy faces and complain of congestion or pressure in their ears. There are worse effects, too: 40 percent of the astronauts who lived on the International Space Station suffered some sort of damage to their eyes, … “spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome,” …
Over 25 months, the brothers submitted to a parallel routine of cognitive and physical tests—including a spinal tap for Scott—in the lab before, during, and after the mission. In all, 317 samples of stool, urine, and blood from both twins were collected and analyzed for their epigenomic, metabolomic, transcriptomic, proteomic, and microbiome changes. All of this was a first for NASA, which had never conducted a modern biological analysis of an astronaut, let alone of an astronaut and a monozygotic control.
The results, whose findings were finally published in Science today, expand our understanding of what happens to the human body after a year in space. “The NASA Twins Study: A Multidimensional Analysis of a Year-Long Human Spaceflight” is a triumph of cross-disciplinary science. Described as “a Herculean endeavor” by one of the article’s peer reviewers, it integrates the work of 10 different groups at universities around the country and 82 separate authors.
… the study provides only unsettling and incomplete answers. Long-term exposure to spaceflight is dangerous; based on what we know now, a journey to Mars is still too risky to contemplate.
The Wired article also includes a recap of Scott and Mark Kelly’s background, as well as noting that the NASA Study was far from glamorous (as part of an astronaut’s life, whether in space or on the ground) — an extended tedium of collecting samples and performing tests. The article references Scott Kelly’s book in which he describes the International Space Station as deafeningly noisy and smelly.
The authors of the NASA twins study helpfully distinguish between the potentially low-risk, mid-level or unknown risks, and high-risk effects of a year-long spaceflight … [and what biological, physiological, and cognitive changes returned to normal in 6 months or not].
All of which is far from that grand vision of “Man in Space” that Disney promoted when I was growing up. Its “practical look (through humorous animation) at what humans in space will have to face in a rocket (both physically and psychologically, such as momentum, weightlessness, radiation, even space sickness)” wasn’t a major takeaway then.
“Man in Space” is an episode of the American television series Disneyland which originally aired on March 9, 1955. It was directed by Disney animator Ward Kimball. This Disneyland episode (set in Tomorrowland), was narrated partly by Kimball and also by such scientists Willy Ley, Heinz Haber, and Wernher von Braun; as well as Dick Tufeld of Lost in Space fame.
“Man in Space” was edited into a featurette to play in theaters, accompanying “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates“.
An adaptation of the episode was published (under the title “Walt Disney’s Man in Space: A Science Feature from Tomorrowland”) by Dell Comics as “Four Color” #716 in 1956, scripted by Don R. Christensen with art by Tony Sgroi.[ It was a “novelization” in comic book form of two Walt Disney television programs, “Man in Space” (1955) and “Tomorrow the Moon” (1955).
The NASA article summarizes findings of the ten research teams:
- Gene Expression
- Integrative Omics
NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) is dedicated to discovering the best methods and technologies to support safe, productive human space travel. HRP enables space exploration by reducing the risks to astronaut health and performance using ground research facilities, the International Space Station, and analog environments.
Future NASA Missions Spark Out-of this-World Ideas: A Concept to Study How Space Affects Multiple Generations
A more recent investment fund project involved a study of how mice might help humans get to Mars. Eighteen NASA Langley researchers and eight students proposed the idea of a MICEHAB, a Multigenerational Independent Colony for Extraterrestrial Habitation, Autonomy, and Behavior health.
A scholarly paper and an animation produced by NASA Langley’s Advanced Concepts Lab help explain and illustrate their concept. But before anyone expresses concerns about the possible mice test subjects, the researchers want to stress this is just an idea.
Due to their penetrating nature, gamma rays require large amounts of shielding mass to reduce them to levels which are not harmful to living cells, in contrast to alpha particles, which can be stopped by paper or skin, and beta particles, which can be shielded by thin aluminium. Gamma rays are best absorbed by materials with high atomic numbers and high density, which contribute to the total stopping power. Because of this, a lead (high Z) shield is 20–30% better as a gamma shield than an equal mass of another low-Z shielding material, such as aluminium, concrete, water, or soil; lead’s major advantage is not in lower weight, but rather its compactness due to its higher density. Protective clothing, goggles and respirators can protect from internal contact with or ingestion of alpha or beta emitting particles, but provide no protection from gamma radiation from external sources.
Reference: Space.com’s article “First-Ever Image of a Terrestrial Gamma-Ray Burst Shows Light Exploding Out of a Thundercloud in Asia” by Brandon Specktor (May 21, 2019):
Astronomers observed the storm from a special observatory aboard the International Space Station, which launched in April 2018 with the purpose of monitoring the entire visible face of Earth for terrestrial gamma-ray activity. Hopefully, this is just the first of many such images. After one year of operations, the observatory has captured more than 200 terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, and was able to pinpoint the exact geographic location of about 30 of them, according to a statement from the European Space Agency (ESA).
30 thoughts on “Humans fit for space? — NASA’s Twins Study”
That bold vision of Disney’s “Man in Space” was part of NASA’s culture also, as Scott Kelly describes in his book:
Scott Kelly begins his book with recollections of his health after spending a year in space:
The debate over aggressive schedules (accelerated timelines) to put humans on the Moon and Mars is alive and well, as evident in this Space.com article “Will NASA’s Rush to Land Astronauts on the Moon Get Us to Mars Any Faster?” (May 17, 2019).
Is money the challenge? Technology, including robotics? Orbital infrastructure around the Moon (platform gateway) and Mars? A JFK-like “big call” to action? Another space race?
I think Scott Kelly’s cautions are important.
A fellow Caltech alumnus was a systems engineer at a large (well known) corporation. Both he and I worked on programs which pushed the limits of new technology (including software). Throwing more resources (people, money, etc.) on a program when things were behind schedule or went wrong was iffy. System requirements … a state of flux. As he said recently about a new business meeting with a customer years ago, “We will charge you while we make the mistake, and again when we fix it.”
This arsTechnica article “NASA’s full Artemis plan revealed: 37 launches and a lunar outpost” (May 20, 2019) provides more detail on the “return to the Moon” plan.
And this Space.com article “Space Tourism Is about to Push Civilian Astronaut Medicine into the Final Frontier — Are you healthy enough for spaceflight, or just wealthy enough?” by Meghan Bartels (May 21, 2019) is a good overview of the coming challenges for space medicine when “the wealthy stuff” qualifies for trips in space.
The article includes a photo of Stephen Hawking on the tarmac before a 2007 flight in ZERO-G.
As to where the “edge of space” is (Wiki):
So, a family member asked: “I wonder who will be first to implement rotating spacecraft for partial gravity simulation for long duration stays away from gravity wells.”
I found this 2014 NASA report “Artificial Gravity Future Plans for ISS” (link below). It’s a 21-slide PDF presentation. It has an excellent table which summarizes the Human Risks of Spaceflight, including one of Scott Kelly’s favorites: CO2 exposure.
This report does not get into the engineering and operation of Artificial Gravity (AG); but, after reading Scott Kelly’s book about his stays on the ISS and problems with power management and vibrations (even from the treadmill) which can cause damaging oscillations, I think there are technical challenges. Yet another example of how Disney’s “Man in Space” was so credulous.
1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_gravity [See the Proposals and Issues with implementation sections.]
2. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130121-worth-the-weight [“The Rise and Fall of Artificial Gravity – Giant, spinning space-stations that generate their own artificial gravity have been envisaged for decades. So, why has no one built one?” 18 November 2014]
3. https://www.geek.com/news/geek-answers-why-doesnt-the-iss-have-artificial-gravity-1563351/ [“Geek Answers: Why doesn’t the ISS have artificial gravity?” 7-27-2013]
4. https://aerospaceamerica.aiaa.org/features/artificial-gravitys-attraction/ [“Artificial gravity’s attraction” April 2017]
Well, it’s official now: NASA announced this week that “the wealthy stuff” qualifies for trips to the ISS, starting next year.
“NASA invites tourists to space station” (June 7, 2019)
Personally, for anyone or any company envisioning going to the ISS, I’d recommend careful reading of Scott Kelly’s book Endurance. What an eye-opener!
See also: “Civilians will soon be greenlit to rocket to the International Space Station — Got $50 million lying around? Then an outer space vacation may be in your future” (June 7, 2019).
This Phys.org article “Artificial gravity breaks free from science fiction” discusses research by a team from CU Boulder and how gradual conditioning can prevent “cross-coupled illusion” – “a disruption of the inner ear that makes you feel like you’re tumbling.”
Re the “return to the Moon” plan, this Space.com article discusses why we’ve not gone back in 50 years: “It’s 2019. Why Haven’t Humans Gone Back to the Moon Since the Apollo Missions? — The conditions that incubated Apollo just aren’t around anymore” (July 21, 2019).
This Space.com article “Scott Kelly: The American Astronaut Who Spent a Year in Space” by Elizabeth Howell (Sept 4, 2019) is a brief biography of the astronaut.
Visions of space hotels? Cost, safety, sustainability, … This NBC News article summarizes some imaginative plans for orbiting hotels in the coming decades: “Huge space hotel promises fake gravity and ‘supersized basketball’ – The planned Von Braun Station could open as soon as 2027″ (Sept 14, 2019).
Universe Today > Space and astronomy news: “Real Artificial Gravity for SpaceX’s Starship” (Sept 16, 2019)
Real Artificial Gravity for SpaceX’s Starship
1. YouTube video
YouTube Video Description: Real Artificial Gravity for SpaceX’s Starship
Published on Aug 27, 2019
2. YouTube video
SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System
Published on Sep 27, 2016
Category: Science & Technology
Speaking of SpaceX, how will their Starship keep people alive and safe during extended space travel? This article is an excellent overview of Elon Musk’s Starship and what’s needed to survive a trip to Mars: TheVerge > “Elon Musk’s future Starship updates could use more details on human health and survival – People are supposed to fly on this thing, after all” by Loren Grush (Oct 4, 2019)
So, studies continue on the effects of living in space, as noted in this Space.com article. Key research includes developing ways to reduce negative effects.
Space.com > Home News Spaceflight > “Space travel can seriously change your brain” by Chelsea Gohd (April 14, 2020) – This is your brain on space.
Research continues on the impact of extended missions in space on our bodies.
Phys.org > “Space travel may impact how the body handles sodium” by American Heart Association (May 12, 2020).
Another follow-up to NASA’s Twins Study regarding the effects of long-duration space exploration (even journeys to Mars). When our hearts no longer pump blood “uphill” for extended periods of time, our hearts lose mass.
• BBC > “Long spaceflights and endurance swimming can ‘shrink the heart’” by Paul Rincon, Science editor, BBC News website (March 29, 2021) – Spending very long periods of time in space has something in common with extreme endurance swimming: both can cause the heart to shrink.
Risks remain, however, while in space.
In the news: Space travel and the risk of genetic damage from ionizing radiation.
• Engadget > “Astronauts show how CRISPR gene editing works in space” by J. Fingas (July 4, 2021) – The technique could be key to long-term space travel.
• Space.com > “NASA wants to change the way it protects astronauts from radiation” by Rahul Rao (July 2, 2021) – The proposed guideline would give all astronauts the same radiation limit, set to the standard for the most vulnerable population, which is the 35-year-old woman.
An interesting recap of ongoing research on the ISS regarding deterioration of muscles, bones, eyes and ears in space. Even a dreams experiment.
• ESA > “New Year’s science in space for a healthier life” (Jan 6, 2022)
Space anemia. Yikes! Making quite a media splash.
• Phys.org > “Being in space destroys more red blood cells” by The Ottawa Hospital (January 14, 2022)
And one year later, “… red blood cell destruction was still 30 percent above preflight levels.”
Is the situation better if there’s artificial gravity?
Wayback machine archive 1971 – Clarke, Bradbury, Sullivan, Sagan, Murray
This week’s issue of Caltech Weekly noted a revealing panel discussion in 1971 about why we explore space. A discussion which continued over the decades regarding manned exploration. As promoted by The Planetary Society, for example. And SpaceX’s current planning for manned missions to Mars.
What a stellar cast for a panel discussion. Even a follow-up book . A discussion which set the stage for what’s currently playing out on Mars. Got rocks yet?
• Caltech > Archives > “MARS AND THE MIND OF MAN”
Clarke evidently predicted that we’d be on Mars by 2000. A timeline similar to other wild visions, like Disney’s “Man in Space” series .
I like this Bradbury quote (below) regarding the “misinformed theories and past misinterpreted observations” about Mars (in a wider context of speculation from limited data – in the modern era vs. ancient myth-making about the sky).
And I hope that, as Sullivan is quoted as saying, science and reason will triumph over superstition. But many sci-fi sagas continue to portray superstition as a compelling force in far-future culture.
 Amazon book link:
• Mars and the Mind of Man Hardcover – January 1, 1973
by Ray Bradbury (Author), Arthur C. Clarke (Author), Bruce Murray (Author), Carl Sagan (Author), Walter Sullivan (Author)
 Disneyland TV (1955 – 1957) Wiki links:
Based on an article published in the journal Frontiers in Neural Circuits, here’s another plug for artificial gravity as a countermeasure to the effects of long-duration space travel on the human body.
• Space.com > “Cosmonaut brains are ‘rewired’ by space missions, scientists find” by Chelsea Gohd (Feb 18, 2022)
A new record for US spaceflight for long-duration missions.
• Space.com > “NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei breaks record for longest US spaceflight” by Robert Z. Pearlman (March 15, 2022)
Article references NASA’s info graphic on long-duration missions.
Here’s another article about the role of artificial gravity for future off-world venues.
• Space.com > “Artificial gravity: Definition, future tech and research” by Robert Lea published about 6 hours ago – Artificial gravity could revolutionize space exploration and off-Earth tourism.
Caption: Two space stations (NASA/Rick Guidice 1970’s)
Among other methods, extended space missions in microgravity require targeted, regular (typically daily) exercise. One of the challenges of high-impact (jumping) exercise is damping forces from such activity on the spacecraft. In sci-fi space operas where there’s artificial gravity, there’s no worry, eh.
• Space.com > “Astronauts may need to jump in space to fight bone loss” by Brett Tingley (July 1, 2022) – A new study suggests that high-impact exercise could help limit bone loss while in space.
Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain
This Space.com article provides an overview of alpha particles. What’s the risk?
• Space.com > “Alpha particles and alpha radiation: Explained” by Stefanie Waldek (May 13, 2022) – Alpha particles (aka alpha rays or radiation) … pose little danger to humans unless ingested.
Wiki > Diagram of an alpha particle (α) being ejected from the nucleus of an atom. Protons are red and neutrons are blue.
A recent issue of the journal Acta Astronautica called for an international database on long-term health effects of spaceflight – a major challenge. Even eventually any impacts of exposure to the Moon’s dust. Will there be an app for that?
• Space.com > “Can we live long and prosper in space? The astronaut health dilemma” by Leonard David (9-20-2022) – Space medical scientists are pushing for the development of an international database on long-term health effects of spaceflight.
Aside from the sheer engineering challenges of designing and operating a spinning spacecraft, there’re practical human factors.
• Wired > “The Problem With Spinning Spacecraft” by Rhett Allain (Nov 11, 2022) – To send astronauts on long-term space missions, it’ll take rotating habitats to produce artificial gravity. But that’s trickier than you might think.
In dust, there be dragons …
Yeah, I’ve wondered about visions of manned colonies on the Moon and Mars – because of dust. Most sci-fi film and TV dramas bypass this challenge. A problem for human health & activity and equipment.
Like donning and removing spacesuits on habitat egress and ingress. Portrayal of easy coming & going reminds me of something a veteran scuba instructor mentioned recently. A heater failure in an outdoor swimming pool resulted in the water temperature falling. To the point that he was considering bringing a half-wetsuit; but donning a wetsuit was a real hassle. Action movies in which secret agents swim to shore and quickly strip their drysuits off (maybe to reveal a tuxedo for infiltrating an elaborate party) – just are not real.
• LA Times > “NASA prepares for the moon — and familiar foe” by Samantha Masunaga, reporting from Cape Canaveral FL – Stardust may be romantic, but lunar dust is a potential hazard.
(article’s image caption) Scientists at the Swamp Works lab at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., shown in 2019, are working on how to mitigate dust blown by rocket engines during lunar landings. (Jacob M. Langston / For The Times)
Here’s a useful anatomically visualized recap of the effects from extended stays in space (at least low-earth orbit). And, in some cases, mitigating those effects.
• Washington Post > “What space does to your body: Swollen heads, shrunken legs, round hearts” by Gretchen Reynolds and William Neff  (Jan 12, 2023) – Sequined darkness sparks our ambitions, dreams and stories, at a cost.
Space motion sickness
“Puffy Face Bird Leg Phenomenon”
Reduced blood volume
Heart muscle atrophy
Cell damage from radiation, including brain cells
Higher volume of skull fluids
Changes in gene activity
Changes in circadian rhythms
Psychological stress (solitude, confinement, etc.)
 Additional design and development by Betty Chavarria. Editing by Kate Rabinowitz, Manuel Canales and Jeff Dooley. Copy editing by Wayne Lockwood.
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