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Humans fit for space? — NASA’s Twins Study

[See comments for updates.]

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).

Wired:

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 LeyHeinz 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:

  • Telomeres
  • Immunome
  • Gene Expression
  • Cognition
  • Biochemical
  • Microbiome
  • Epigenomics
  • Metabolomics
  • Proteomics
  • 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. 

Notes

MICEHAB [visualization]

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. 

NASA Langley Research Center
Published on Jul 7, 2016
Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, have an idea about how mice could help humans get to Mars. This video accompanies a scholarly paper.

Gamma rays

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.

Chart

Beta rays

Diagram
Alpha radiation consists of helium nuclei and is readily stopped by a sheet of paper. Beta radiation, consisting of electrons or positrons, is stopped by thin aluminum plate, but gamma radiation requires shielding by dense material such as lead, steel, or concrete.

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).

13 thoughts on “Humans fit for space? — NASA’s Twins Study

  1. That bold vision of Disney’s “Man in Space” was part of NASA’s culture also, as Scott Kelly describes in his book:

    When I became an astronaut and started getting to know my astronaut classmates, many of us shared the same memory of coming downstairs in our pajamas as little kids to watch the moon landing. Most of them had decided, then and there, to go to space one day. At the time, we were promised that Americans would land on the surface of Mars by 1975, when I was eleven.

    Everything was possible now that we had put a man on the moon. Then NASA lost most of its funding, and our dreams of space were downgraded over the decades. Yet my astronaut class was told we would be the first to go to Mars, and we believed it so fully that we put it on the class patch we wore on our flight jackets, a little red planet rising above the moon and the Earth. Since then, NASA has accomplished the assembly of the International Space Station, the hardest thing human beings have ever achieved. Getting to Mars and back will be even harder, and I have spent a year in space—longer than it would take to get to Mars—to help answer some of the questions about how we can survive that journey. — Kelly, Scott. Endurance (pp. 11-12). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  2. Scott Kelly begins his book with recollections of his health after spending a year in space:

    As I try to will myself to sleep, I wonder whether my friend Mikhail Kornienko is also suffering from swollen legs and painful rashes—Misha is home in Moscow after spending nearly a year in space with me. I suspect so. This is why we volunteered for this mission, after all: to discover how the human body is affected by long-term spaceflight. Scientists will study the data on Misha and me for the rest of our lives and beyond. Our space agencies won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain that makes spaceflight possible: the human body and mind. People often ask me why I volunteered for this mission, knowing the risks — the risk of launch, the risk inherent in spacewalks, the risk of returning to Earth, the risk I would be exposed to every moment I lived in a metal container orbiting the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. I have a few answers I give to this question, but none of them feels fully satisfying to me. None of them quite answers it. — Kelly, Scott. Endurance (pp. 7-8). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  3. 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).

    A mission to the moon may be a good “steppingstone” for sending humans to Mars, but the experts are divided over whether NASA’s new push to put humans on the moon in 2024 will help get the agency to Mars by the 2030s.

    “We’re going to the moon because we want to get to Mars with humans,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Tuesday (May 14) here at the Humans to Mars Summit. By accelerating the timeline for getting astronauts back on the moon, “we are by definition accelerating the humans to Mars program,” he added.

    The agency has said that it plans to land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s, following President Barack Obama’s request in 2016. The following year, Trump requested a nongovernmental, independent report about the possibility of launching humans to Mars in 2033 in his NASA Authorization Act of 2017. Although Bridenstine has said that NASA wants to achieve a landing in 2033, he hasn’t offered a new timeline for Mars based on the moon mission just yet.

    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.”

  4. 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.

    Last week, an updated plan that demonstrated a human landing in 2024, annual sorties to the lunar surface thereafter, and the beginning of a Moon base by 2028, began circulating within the agency. A graphic, shown below, provides information about each of the major launches needed to construct a small Lunar Gateway, stage elements of a lunar lander there, fly crews to the Moon and back, and conduct refueling missions.

    Although the plan is laudable in that it represents a robust human exploration of deep space, scientific research, and an effort to tap water resources at the Moon, it faces at least three big problems [3 miracles].

  5. 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.

    Many more tourists have already experienced zero-gravity conditions for brief snippets of time during parabolic flights. ZERO-G has flown more than 15,000 passengers — including Stephen Hawking …

    Right now, there aren’t any rules requiring space tourism companies to set or meet any health criteria for accepting passengers — they just need to have each customer sign a statement saying they understand the risks of such a flight. (Although Scheuring [a flight surgeon at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas] notes that there’s no guarantee scientists have identified all of those risks to date, especially for passengers without NASA’s prerequisite “perfect” body.)

    As to where the “edge of space” is (Wiki):

    The Kármán line, or Karman line, is an attempt to define a boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. This is important for legal and regulatory measures; aircraft and spacecraft fall under different jurisdictions and are subject to different treaties.

    The Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI; English: World Air Sports Federation), an international standard-setting and record-keeping body for aeronautics and astronautics, defines the Kármán line as the altitude of 100 kilometres (62 miles; 330,000 feet) above Earth’s sea level. Other organizations do not use this definition. For instance, the US Air Force and NASA define the limit to be 50 miles (80 kilometres) above sea level for purposes of awarding personnel with outer space badges.

  6. 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.

    https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20150009516.pdf

    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.

    Other references:

    1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_gravity [See the Proposals and Issues with implementation sections.]

    or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_gravity

    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]

  7. 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)

    NASA … announced a plan to allow private citizens to fly to the International Space Station and stay for the tidy sum of $35,000 per night. This news flash, representing a major change in policy for NASA …

    The agency wants to open the International Space Station to more commercial interests, including filming advertisements. While NASA touted the plan as a way to help fund its ambitious plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 as it tries to build a sustainable economy in space, it’s unclear how much the agency stands to make under the new policy.

    NASA’s announcement is a significant change for the agency, which has had a long-standing prohibition against allowing tourists on the station. Russia, however, has allowed several private astronauts on the station.

    Under the NASA plan, as many as two private citizens per year could fly to the station and stay for up to 30 days, with the first mission coming as early as next year.

    Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer, estimated the cost per trip would be about $50 million a seat. But the cost and arrangements would be left to SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies NASA has hired to fly crews to the station. They would keep that money and also have to make sure that private astronauts “meet NASA’s medical standards and the training and certification procedures” for crew members.

    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!

    Scott Kelly's year in space on the ISS.

    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).

    But soon, you’ll have a simpler way to leave Earth’s atmosphere, as long as you’re filthy rich. According to a report Friday by the Washington Post, NASA will soon let civilians travel to the International Space Station for a projected cost of $50 million. That’s not an all-expenses-included fee, either.

    The International Space Station could soon become humanity's next hottest tourist destination.

  8. 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.”

    The researchers, led by aerospace engineer Torin Clark, can’t mimic those Hollywood creations—yet. But they are imagining new ways to design revolving systems that might fit within a room of future space stations and even moon bases. Astronauts could crawl into these rooms for just a few hours a day to get their daily doses of gravity. Think spa treatments, but for the effects of weightlessness.

    The group reported its results in June in the Journal of Vestibular Research.

  9. 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).

    “The Apollo days were not, fundamentally, about going to the moon,” John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C., told Space.com. “They were about demonstrating American global leadership in a zero-sum Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.

    So NASA got the resources it needed to pull off its moon shot. And those resources were immense — about $25.8 billion for Apollo from 1960 through 1973, or nearly $264 billion in today’s dollars. During the mid-1960s, NASA got about 4.5% of the federal budget — 10 times greater than its current share.

    The stakes haven’t been nearly as high since the end of the Cold War, so subsequent moon projects haven’t enjoyed such sustained support. (They likely also suffered from some been-there-done-that sentiment.) For example, the Constellation Program, which took shape under President George W. Bush, was canceled in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

    Obama directed NASA to instead send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid. But President Donald Trump nixed that plan in 2017, putting the agency back on course for the moon.

  10. 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.

    Kelly has remained active in spaceflight activities even after retiring from NASA. In fall 2017, he published his autobiography “Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery” (Viking, 2017). The title of his book was inspired by Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance” (Hodder and Stoughton, 1959), about Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. Kelly brought a copy of Lansing’s book with him to space during his last mission, and left it behind in the space station’s small library when he came back to Earth, he recalled in the biography.

    In 2016, Sony Pictures announced it had secured the film rights for “Endurance.”

    PBS and Time did a follow-up documentary on Kelly called “Beyond A Year in Space,” which examined Kelly’s return to Earth and subsequent medical testing …

  11. 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).

    Though space hotels have long belonged only to the world of make-believe, that’s about to change. NASA says it will open the International Space Station (ISS) to tourists as early as 2020. A Houston-based startup called Orion Span has proposed a four-guest space hotel called Aurora Station that would open in 2022.

    And now the Gateway Foundation, a startup in Alta Loma, California, is planning what may be the most ambitious space hotel project of all: a sort of space-based cruise ship big enough to hold a pair of hotels that would accommodate 100 guests and perhaps three times as many crew members. The facility would feature artificial gravity and have restaurants, gyms, sports arenas and concert venues as well as spaceplanes ready to whisk guests back to Earth in case of an emergency.

  12. Universe Today > Space and astronomy news: “Real Artificial Gravity for SpaceX’s Starship” (Sept 16, 2019)

    Interesting visualizations.

    Real Artificial Gravity for SpaceX’s Starship

    Despite the many, many problems we face in the world today, it is still an exciting time to be alive! As we speak, mission planners and engineers are developing the concepts that will soon take astronauts on voyages beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in almost fifty years. In addition to returning to the Moon, we are also looking further afield to Mars and other distant places in the Solar System.

    This presents a number of challenges, not the least of which are the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation and microgravity. And whereas there are many viable options for protecting crews from radiation, gravity remains a bit of a stumbling block. To address this, Youtuber smallstars has proposed a concept that he calls the Gravity Link Starship (GLS), a variation of SpaceX’s Starship that will be able to provide its own artificial gravity.

    1. YouTube video

    YouTube Video Description: Real Artificial Gravity for SpaceX’s Starship
    Channel: smallstars
    Published on Aug 27, 2019

    Why go to mars like it’s 1995 if artificial gravity can be practical by 2024?

    This is a concept that I am describing with an animation. The design as seen in the animation is just a visual representation and will likely be improved in future versions. The goal of the Gravity Link Starship concept is to provide a spin gravity that re-uses the main engines, taps left over fuel, and avoids impractical space construction and spacewalks.

    The GLS is basically a hub ship, like the hub of a wheel. Instead of humans and cargo the payload bay of the GLS is filled with truss that can robotically fold out and lock into place serving as the wheel’s spokes.

    Once on the way to a distant destination like Mars, 2 Passenger Starships will make their approach to the attachment points at the ends of the deployed truss. Once attached, one Starship remains fixed while the other one slowly rotates it’s orientation on it’s swivel joint.

    At this point the main engines will facing opposite each other and will be used to spin the system, thus creating a centripetal force equal to earths gravity.

    When the desired spin speed and by extension amount of artificial gravity force is achieved, both Starships will swivel themselves into a resting position which is an orientation in line with the truss so that gravity is pulling in the correct direction, down towards the bottom of the ships.

    2. YouTube video

    SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System
    Published on Sep 27, 2016
    Channel: SpaceX
    Category: Science & Technology

  13. 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)

    SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has now given four presentations about his company’s Starship rocket, but all of those updates mostly focused on the vehicle’s external stats. Musk has barely touched on the technologies needed to keep people alive and healthy while on Starship — technologies that need to be developed relatively soon if the spacecraft has any hope of carrying people to deep-space destinations like the Moon and Mars in the near future.

    Musk says only 5 percent of SpaceX’s resources are being used to develop Starship at the moment, which may explain why the rocket is the sole focus. At some point, the humans will need to be addressed, though. It’s just a matter of when.

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