Tag Archives: Mark Kelly

NASA Twin Study finds health can be ‘mostly sustained’ in space

Astronaut Mark Kelly spent just shy of a year on the International Space Station. He also has a twin brother. NASA used this opportunity to study how life in space changes the human body.

Three years after his return, the test results of his extended stay are in. Dubbed the NASA Twin Study, it is the most comprehensive integrated molecular, physiological and behavioral analysis of how the human body responds to space flight .

Astronauts Scott Kelly with his brother, Astronaut Mark Kelly. Image credits: NASA.

The study included the work of 84 scientists, part of 10 teams from 12 universities across the United States. Each report studied different aspects of the human body in space. The data included cognitive measurements, physiological data and 27 months of samples from both Scott and his twin Earth-bound brother Mark, including blood, plasma, urine, and stool.

“The Twins Study has been an important step toward understanding epigenetics and gene expression in human spaceflight,” said J.D. Polk, chief Health and Medical Officer at NASA Headquarters. “Thanks to the twin brothers and a cadre of investigators who worked tirelessly together, the valuable data gathered from the Twins Study has helped inform the need for personalized medicine and its role in keeping astronauts healthy during deep space exploration, as NASA goes forward to the Moon and journeys onward to Mars.”

During his 342 days in orbit, Scott also became the first American to spend almost a whole consecutive year in space. While he was found to be in good health after the testing concluded, not everything was alright.

According to the study, which was reported in the journal Science, Scott underwent several changes. Among them were carotid artery thickening, DNA damage, gene expression changes, retinal nerve thickening, shifts in gut microbes, reduced cognitive abilities as well as a structural change at the ends of chromosomes called telomeres. In contrast to some stories reported last year though, there were no DNA mutations.

Researchers also found that his immune system acted basically the same way it would for you and me; a flu vaccine administered worked exactly as it would have on Earth. Researchers also found that changes in Scott’s diversity of gut flora in space were no greater than stress-related changes scientists observe here.

The telomere elongation was one of the most striking finds though. Telomeres are the protective “caps” on the ends of chromosomes. And while 91.3 percent of his gene expression levels returned to normal or baseline levels within six months of landing back on Earth, he now has more short telomeres than he did prior to the 340-day mission. This could pose a problem as having shorter telomeres could put a person at higher risk for accelerated aging. It also increases the risk for diseases that come along getting older such as cardiovascular disease and some cancers. That’s a problem for those want to spend extended time in space (Mars, anyone?).

“For us Earthlings, it’s pretty similar,” said Colorado State University Professor Susan Bailey, who studies telomeres. “We all worry about getting older, and everyone wants to avoid cardiovascular disease and cancer. If we can figure out what’s going on, what’s causing these changes in telomere length, perhaps we could slow it down.”

But for the time being, NASA says that there were no long-lasting detriments to Scott’s health. However, the same might not be true for those who spend time outside of Earth’s gravitational field. Besides the time spent in space, astronauts going to Mars will also incur continuous radiation exposure.

“To our knowledge, this team of teams has conducted a study unprecedented in its scope across levels of human biology: from molecular analyses of human cells and the microbiome to human physiology to cognition,” said Craig Kundrot, director, Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Application Division at NASA Headquarters. “This paper is the first report of this highly integrated study that began five years ago when the investigators first gathered. We look forward to the publication of additional analyses and follow-up studies with future crew members as we continue to improve our ability to live and work in space and venture forward to the Moon and on to Mars.”

A year in space — it really changes your genes

The first results are in from the NASA Twins Study, and they’re pretty worrying.

Mark Kelly (left) and Scott Kelly (right), on Jan. 19, 2015. Image credits: Robert Markowitz / NASA.

Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly are both retired astronauts, veterans of NASA’s space program. The Kelly twins are the only identical twin astronauts in history, representing a unique opportunity to study the effects of spaceflight on the human body.

In November 2012, Scott was selected, along with Mikhail Korniyenko, for the so-called year-long mission (340 days in outer space), while Mark remained earthbound. It was the perfect opportunity for a comparative nature versus nurture study. Aside from Scott’s main mission, NASA wanted to see if any differences had emerged between the two. Thus, the Twins Study was born.

Several different research labs were given different missions regarding this analysis. Carrying out a thorough comparative study, especially when it comes to genetic profiling, is no easy feat. Science takes time, but after two years of research we finally have the first results, and they’re quite interesting.

Most of the changes were temporary. For instance, the telomeres on Scott’s chromosome had lengthened on his mission, but they shortened right back up in just 48 hours after he landed.

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Telomeres” footer=””]

Telomeres are regions of repetitive molecules at the end of a chromosome, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration or from fusion with neighboring chromosomes. Think of them as the fringes at the end of a rug — and the rug are your chromosomes.

The telomeres themselves are protected by a complex of proteins, as well as by the RNA that telomeric DNA encodes. However, during chromosome replication, the enzymes that duplicate DNA cannot continue their duplication all the way to the end of a chromosome, so in each duplication, the end of the chromosome is shortened.

Essentially, each repetition creates an imperfect copy of itself and, in time, the telomeres tend to become shorter and shorter as we age. They are replenished by an enzyme, telomerase reverse transcriptase.[/panel]

It’s not clear why Scott’s telomeres became longer in space, but it might be due to the very intensive physical regime he had to undertake, as well as the highly controlled diet he was subjected to. But this wasn’t the only difference.

The analysis found a spike in a group of cytokines in Scott’s blood just after his return to Earth that remained elevated for six months, signaling a minor inflammation. Scott’s gastrointestinal bacterial flora was also significantly different, and some helpful bacteria seemed to be absent.

However, the most intriguing (and concerning) aspect is that a full 7 percent of Scott’s genes still showed some sign after alteration six months after landing. It’s not clear exactly what caused these differences — additional results from the study are needed.

This enables us to better prepare for long-term space missions, but also raises significant question marks regarding the overall health of the people aboard these future missions.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned to the U.S. 2 inches taller

Astronaut Scott Kelly returned to planet Earth on Thursday, after a landing in which everything went smoothly, as expected. But for Kelly, his mission is far from over – he was involved in a twin study and will now be subjected to constant medical monitoring to see how his body changed following the prolonged period in orbit. The first results are already interesting: he got 2 inches (5 cm taller).

Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko. Photo by NASA.

Scott is a twin, which made him an ideal candidate for this kind of study. NASA wants to see how the human body adapts to living in outer space, looking specifically at the effects of space radiation, as well as the effect of visual impairment associated with long-duration space flight.

Graham Scott, chief scientist at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and deputy project scientist for the NASA and NSBRI Twin Study said that eye vision is especially intriguing, as we don’t exactly understand what affects astronauts’ vision in space

“We will be looking at the eyes to see how much visual acuity has been lost,” he said during a phone interview Thursday. The majority of astronauts have to change their eye glasses while in space,” he said. “They bring eye glasses with them and typically change a few months into the mission.”

The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 (Kazakh time). Kelly and Kornienko completed an International Space Station record year-long mission. Photo via NASA.

Of course, muscles and bones are another issue with space flight. While in space, there’s no gravitational pull which means muscles aren’t really worked properly. For almost a year, Scott Kelly didn’t use his legs to walk, instead just floating from area to area of the Space Station. As a result, his bones became brittle and his muscles became weaker. International Space Station astronauts tie themselves down to a treadmill, strap into a bike and use a resistance device to work out for 2 to 2.5 hours a day, but it’s still not enough.

“The workouts have positively impacted the astronauts’ bones and muscles, and they are coming back in really good shape,” he said. “But some are losing bone and muscle but not as much as we saw in the early days.”

When bones become weaker, they release calcium which can accumulate in the kidneys, creating kidney stones.

But the biggest problem for a long-term space travel like a mission to Mars is radiation.

“If you go on a journey to Mars and get into deep space, there is several hundred times, maybe 300 times the radiation,” he said.

Doctors hope that by studying Scott Kelly, and by monitoring the differences from his twin brother Mark (who is also an astronaut) they can device safer conditions for space travelers.

Astronaut Scott Kelly Breaks Record for Days in Space, and It’s Important

United States Astronaut Scott Kelly has just beaten the record for the most cumulative days in space (for the US). As of today, he has a total of 383 days and counting, surpassing Mike Fincke, a two-time space station resident, who was the previous record holder at 382 days. This is not only a great achievement for himself and for astronauts in general, but it provides a great opportunity to study the effects of space travel on the human body – as Kelly has an identical twin back on Earth.

Image credits: Scott Kelly, NASA.

You see, out of all the important experiments carried out on the International Space Station, one is especially interesting: Kelly is using his own body as an experiment. NASA wants to compare his health to that of twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who has remained on Earth. This will enable researchers to determine the effects that prolonged periods in space have on the human body – something especially important as NASA is preparing its mission to Mars, which will take over 150 days for one way.

The so-called “NASA twin experiment” will include 10 experiments in four areas: human physiology, behavioural health, microbiology and molecular. This is a rare chance, that two astronauts are twin brothers, with one of them staying for very long periods in space, and NASA wants to seize this opportunity.

‘This is a chance in a lifetime,’ said Dr Craig Kundrot, the deputy chief scientist of Nasa’s Human Research Program. ‘In this case we’ve got two genetically identical individuals and we can monitor what kind of changes occur in Mark in an ordinary lifestyle and compare those to the changes that we see in Scott.’ By staying on the station for 12 months, the astronauts will also provide key information on how an eventual Mars mission – estimated to last three years there and back – might play out.

As for Kelly, he’s enjoying his ride, but wants to see even more from his colleagues.

‘Records are meant to be broken. Look fwd to one of my colleagues surpassing my end 500+ days on our #JourneyToMars,’ Kelly tweeted today.

When he returns back to Earth, he will have spent a total of 522 days in space, an incredible figure! As he orbited above the Himalayas, he posted this dazzling picture of a sunset, filtered through solar panels on the ISS.

Image credits: Scott Kelly, NASA.

We here see only one sunrise and one sunset every day because the Earth is revolving around the Sun. But because the ISS revolves around the Earth, they get to see more sunsets – approximately one every 92 minutes.

NASA to conduct unprecedented twin experiment: one twin will spend a year circling the Earth, while the other stays grounded

It’s something that puzzled me for years now: consider a pair of identical twins; say, one gets a job as an astronaut and rockets into space. The other is also an astronaut, but he decides to skip this one and stay home. After a while, they reunite, but are they still identical? That’s exactly what NASA wants to find out!

In March of 2015, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly will join cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko on a one-year mission to the International Space Station. Their lengthy mission is part of a study which will document the effects of long-term space flight on the human body. But here’s the cool part: Scott Kelly also has a twin brother, Mark Kelly – who is also an astronaut, albeit retired. We wrote about his retirement here. While Scott, the test subject, spends one year circling Earth onboard the ISS, his brother Mark will remain home as a control.

“We will be taking samples and making measurements of the twins before, during, and after the one-year mission,” says Craig Kundrot of NASA’s Human Research Program at the Johnson Space Center. “For the first time, we’ll be able two individuals who are genetically identical.”

So what will they be studying? The ISS doesn’t go at high enough speed for an age difference to be noticeable (according to Einstein’s theory, if you travel at fast enough speeds, comparable to that of speed of light, time will slow down for you – so if this were to happen, one twin would be younger than the other). The main focus will be the subjects’ health.

“We already know that the human immune system changes in space. It’s not as strong as it is on the ground,” explains Kundrot. “In one of the experiments, Mark and Scott will be given identical flu vaccines, and we will study how their immune systems react.”

Another experiment will look at telomeres—little molecular “caps” on the ends of human DNA. Telomeres have been linked to aging, and in space, telomere loss could be accelerated by the action of cosmic rays. Researchers will study if space travel accelerates aging. Meanwhile in the gut, says Kundrot:

“There is a whole microbiome essential to human digestion. One of the experiments will study what space travel does to [inner bacteria] which, by the way, outnumber human cells by 10-to-1.”

Another study will focus on how vision changes in outer space, and on “space fog”—a lack of alertness and slowing of mental gears reported by some astronauts in orbit. But these aren’t separate studies – it’s just a big one with many aspects.

“These will not be 10 individual studies,” says Kundrot. “The real power comes in combining them to form an integrated picture of all levels from biomolecular to psychological. We’ll be studying the entire astronaut.”




Spacewalker astronaut runs into trouble

Spacewalking isn’t all fun and games – things can go bad at any moment, and in the latest spacewalk, this is exactly what happened: Mike Fincke, one of NASA’s most experienced spacemen, reported that while they were lubricating a joint in the life-sustaining solar power system of the International Space Station, they lost one bolt and they got one washer stuck in a crevice.

Basically, the bolts which were holding down covers on the huge joint started popping off unexpectedly. His spacewalking partner, Andrew Feustel sums it up with just one word:

“Bummer,” he said.

You just gotta love this kind of sense of humour. However, they went into overtime, trying to fix whateved could be fixed, lubed the rest of the bolts and installed three covers. Thus, the spacewalk lasted 1 and 1/2 hours more than expected, becoming the sixth longest ever.

“You guys earned your pay for the day,” astronaut Gregory Chamitoff radioed from inside. The spacewalkers joked about getting paid, saying their reward was being outside watching the world spin by.

This was an extremely difficult mission, even for Fincke, who hadhis seventh spacewalk and Feustel, who had his fifth. They praised one another as they headed out the hatch. This is Endeavou’r second out of four planned pacewalks, afterwhich the space shuttle will go into a museum.

Endeavour’s last launch put on hold for at least a week

Space shuttle Endeavour was set to launch a few days ago, and everything seemd to go according to plan; however, technical difficulties are forcing the NASA engineers to delay the launch at least until the end of the week (probably more), which is bad news for everybody who had planned a visit to the launch site (including president Obama and his family).

Technicians need to replace a switch box in the engine compartment, NASA stated; astronauts and their families were still hoping for a launch today, but NASA was pretty direct in saying that this is not an option.

Endeavour is set to go on its last trip, in a mission that will be led by veteran Mark Kelly, who is probably also on his last mission. The space shuttle will make a two week visit to the International Space Station (ISS), and its goal is to deliver a highly sophisticated astrophysics device that will help in the search for particles, as well as the elusive dark matter. After this last mission, Endeavour will be retired, alongside Discovery, and will be joined later by the last active space orbiter, Atlantis. The retirement of Atlantis will mark the end of an era for NASA, as well as for space exploration.

Endeavour’s last flight will also be Mark Kelly’s last

Endeavour will pretty soon begin its retirement, just like fellow space orbiter Discovery did just a while ago. However, Endeavour’s last flight will almost certainly be captain Mark Kelly’s last one too.

Kelly, 47, showed his flying skills with twin brother Scott, and signed up for the Navy, then became pilots, and finally, became astronauts; they are the world’s first and as up today, only ‘space siblings’. Unfortunately, his wife, who is a U.S. Congresswoman, was the target of an attempted assasination in January, which she barely survived, so it’s understandable that he wants to be as much as possible by her side. However, her recuperation was so swift, that he decided to do one last flight before retiring from his life as an active astronaut.

Captain Kelly has already been in space three times, just like his bother, and spent more than 38 days outside Earth’s atmosphere, traveling more than 38 million miles and going around the Earth 186 times. We would like to pay homage to the astronauts, as well as to the space ships, which have done so much during the years; it’s the change of a generation, for orbiters as well as for humans, and what a generation it was ! The past 50 years were NASA’s finest, transforming space travel from a child’s fantasy into a real possibility. For Endeavour, as well as Mark Kelly, there is only one thing we can still say: once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more !