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Humans fit for space? — NASA’s Twins Study

Today (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 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. 



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.