A NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts blasted off for the International Space Station today. Their launch wasn’t historic in its own right. After all, the three are members of the 43rd expeditionary crew to live aboard the outpoust. What is groundbreaking is the fact that two of them won’t be coming home for nearly a full year.
Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, along with cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, blased off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in their Soyuz 42 (TMA-16M) spacecraft at 3:42 p.m. EDT to begin the 5-hour trip to the space station. After rendezvous and docking at 8:33 p.m. EDT, hatches between the two craft were opened at 11:33 p.m. and the three-person Soyuz crew joined the three residents already onboard ISS.
They join NASA’s Terry Virts, European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, and Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and bring the number of inhabitants onboard ISS back to its full six-person complement.
Kelly and Kornienko’s arrival heralds the beginning of an unprecendeted study into the effect of long-term spaceflight and, in the case of Kelly, a first-of-its-kind comparative study between identical twins, one of whom (Scott’s brother Mark) will remain on Earth to serve as a control subject.
Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko seemed to look forward to paving new territory in the space programs of the two one-time Cold War rival nations.
“We’re going to be up here for a long time, but I couldn’t be doing it with a better guy,” Kelly said.
Shortly after Kelly’s reached orbit, brother Mark – also an astronaut with spaceflight experience – issued a statement of support for his brother and the unique study of which he is a part.
“The first manned American space flight lasted 30 minutes. And now, we will have an American in space for a year. We have come a long way,” said Mark via representative in an email to Zero-G News.
“(Every) time we safely launch people into space, it’s a big deal. It’s the successful coming together of science, engineering, and the drive to explore. A huge number of committed individuals have to work together to support a singular event: accelerating people off the planet. It is a really challenging thing to do. And it is never routine.
“This mission will push the limits of what Americans can do in space. I hope it will advance our understanding of what happens when people leave the planet for a long time and help pave the way for sending Americans beyond low-earth orbit.
“There are a lot of exciting destinations in the universe, some not too far away. This mission is another step toward them.
“I am proud of Scott for his service to our country, and for taking on this challenge in the name of exploration, science, and advancing America’s space program.
“To my brother Scott: Thank you for your service. And be careful up there.”
The one-year mission will focus on seven key areas of human research. Functional studies will examine crew member performance during and after the 12-month expedition. Behavioral studies will monitor sleep patterns and exercise routines. Visual impairment will be studied by measuring changes in pressure inside the human skull. Metabolic investigations will examine the immune system and effects of stress.
NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) will fund 10 short-term, first-of-its-kind investigations into the molecular, physiological and psychological effects of spaceflight in a continuous effort to reduce the health impacts of human space exploration. The National Space Biomedical Research Institute is partnering with HRP to provide genetic counseling and assisting in the management of the research.
“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.”
This study will focus in part on the comparison of blood samples collected from Scott and Mark at regular intervals before, during and after the one-year mission. Physiological and psychological testing also will be conducted on the brothers before, during and after the mission.
“Each proposal is fascinating and could be a feature-length story of its own,” says Kundrot.
“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. Here on Earth, the loss of telomeres has been linked to aging. In space, telomere loss could be accelerated by the action of cosmic rays. Comparing the twins’ telomeres could tell researchers if space radiation is prematurely aging space travelers.
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.”
Tentative plans for data collection on the twins currently include blood sampling on Scott at regular intervals before, during and after the one-year mission on the space station and corresponding blood sampling on Mark, who will otherwise be living his normal lifestyle in Arizona. Limited additional samples, such as saliva, cheek swabs, stool or additional blood, or psychological or physical tests will be considered only for study if they do not interfere with the primary investigations aboard the space station and will help identify one or more aspects of brief or long-term effects of spaceflight on humans.
Other proposals are equally fascinating. One seeks to discover why astronaut vision changes in space. “Sometimes, their old glasses from Earth don’t work,” notes Kundrot. Another will probe a phenomenon called “space fog”-a lack of alertness and slowing of mental gears reported by some astronauts in orbit.
Scientific and technical experts from academia and government reviewed 40 proposals submitted in response to the research announcement “Human Exploration Research Opportunities – Differential Effects on Homozygous Twin Astronauts Associated with Differences in Exposure to Spaceflight Factors.” The 10 selected proposals, which are from 10 institutions in seven states, will receive a combined $1.5 million during a three-year period:
“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.”
“This is a once-in-a-space-program opportunity,” admits John Charles, Ph.D., chief of the HRP’s International Science Office. “The mission of the HRP is to reduce the risk to astronauts during long-duration space flight. In typical investigations, we usually have a specific outcome in mind and are goal-oriented. In this case, the slate is essentially blank.”
“The genetic revolution has reached space science and the space age,” asserts Charles. “This is an opportunity to explore and see what’s out there. We are prepared for any kind of suggestions that the scientific community presents that are peer-reviewed.”
A multitude of human research investigations currently are underway and are scheduled for upcoming expeditions aboard the space station by NASA and its international partners. The opportunity to compare the effects of spaceflight accumulated over one year and observe changes in the genetic makeup between twin brothers is new. These investigations could have lasting implications for protecting astronauts on deep space exploration missions, including travel to asteroids and Mars.
Physical performance will be monitored through exercise examinations. Microbial changes in the crew will be monitored, as well as the human factors associated with how the crew interacts aboard the station. Each of these key elements carries a potential benefit for populations here on Earth, from functional improvements for patients recovering from a long period of bed rest to improving the monitoring of immune functions of people on Earth with altered immunity.
Data from Kelly and Kornienko’s 342-day expedition will be used to determine whether there are ways to further reduce the risks on future long-duration missions necessary for deep space missions.
In tandem with the one-year mission, Kelly’s identical twin brother, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, will participate in a number of comparative genetic studies, including the collection of blood samples as well as psychological and physical tests. This research will compare data from the genetically identical Kelly brothers to identify any subtle changes caused by spaceflight.
Expedition 43 will perform scientific research in several other fields, such as astrophysics and biotechnology. Among the planned experiments are a study of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere and testing of a new synthetic material that can expand and contract like human muscle tissue. The crew members also are scheduled to greet a host of cargo spacecraft during their mission, including the sixth SpaceX commercial resupply flight and a Russian Progress resupply mission. Each flight will carry several tons of food, fuel, supplies and research. No spacewalks are planned during Expedition 43.