NASA Mars mission: Pioneering astronaut study proves long-term space travel IS safe

Twin studies are the closest scientists can get to putting a person in two places at once. Such studies can reveal the importance of environmental and genetic influences. And the results of a ground-breaking NASA research on International Space Station (ISS) astronaut Scott Kelly and his twin brother Mark suggest long-term space travel is far safer for humans than previously feared.

The year-long NASA twin study simultaneously tracked Scott while he was in space and his identical twin Mark – a former astronaut – as went about his life on Earth.

The researchers tracked changes in both brothers’ biological markers to pinpoint any variances.

Because the twins share the same genetic code, researchers reasoned that any observed differences should tentatively be linked to Scott’s time aboard the ISS.

This allowed them to take advantage of a unique opportunity and explore how an extended stay in space may impact the human body.

Professor Francine Garrett-Bakelman of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and a key investigator on the landmark study revealed to the implications about the “reassuring” results.

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She said: “The most important finding of the study was actually that most things either didn’t change, or if they did change, most things went back to their baseline soon after the astronaut returned to Earth.

“To me that is very reassuring, suggesting the human body is able to adapt to and survive long-term travel or manned missions to Mars.

“The vast majority of the biological perimeters which were measured, changes within the expected range which you would expect to see on Earth.

“And even if they changed a little bit more than during space travel, most of them came back to their baseline when they returned.

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“To me this was a very reassuring study – it shows long-term space travel is not a crazy idea any more.”

NASA has discovered that living in a microgravity environment can damage DNA, impact the way thousands of individual genes are expressed, lengthen the tips of chromosomes, thicken artery walls and even modify the microbiome, among others.

Professor Garrett-Bakelman, who is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine explains what made this study so special.

She said: “This was the first comprehensive, molecular characterisation of twins, one of whom was an astronaut and one who was not.

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“And it was not only that – it was also the extent of the study – there were 10 different principle investigative teams and each team focussed on a different aspect of biology.

“And this was the first time there was an attempt to integrate data from both psychological, biological, molecular-biology, micro-biome, immunology – you name it – to characterise what space travel does to human beings for terms longer than a couple of weeks.

Yet despite the comprehensive nature of the NASA study, the scientist is at pains that we should be wary of what to conclude from the research.

The scientist, who worked on the protocols for the sample collections for the blood samples, added: “NASA plans to have more of these long-term missions to the ISS and what first has to be done is confirm what has been found.

“This was a study of one and we have to be careful of what we can conclude from it.

“Additional studies of one year missions will help solidify whether or not what we saw was an occurrence which happens in this particular individual or whether it is something universal which happens across the board for all astronauts.

“And the aspect to remember is the space station is within the protection of the magnetic field of the Earth and we really don’t not know what happens if we go beyond there.

“So I would expect, at some point when space agencies try to go back to the moon or start planning for further travel, in addition to the engineering advances that would be made for the protection of the astronauts, I’m sure they will look at these parameters we have discovered.

“And hopefully the study that was published will form the basis for biological perimeters which should be investigated further and hopefully some counter-measures can be developed to prevent longer-terms health effects.”


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