In the summer of 1969, Apollo 11 rocketed American astronauts to the Moon, and on July 20th the world stood still and watched as Neil Armstrong took those first small steps on the surface. Fast-forward almost 50 years and NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Christina Koch each spend nearly a year in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS), a remarkable multinational collaborative project and floating U.S. National Laboratory that has supported continuous human presence in low Earth orbit for the past 20 years.
While living onboard the ISS affords an “out-of-this-world” and life-changing perspective of our home planet that few ever personally experience, it also represents an extreme environment fraught with extraordinary challenges and stresses — traveling at a speed of 17,000 mph, 250 miles above the Earth, unavoidably being exposed to the space radiation environment, experiencing 16 light/dark cycles every 24 hours, all while isolated from family and friends and floating around in a confined box the size of a football field with a handful of folks you depend on for your survival.
NASA’s first One Year Mission (2015-2016) presented unique research opportunities for evaluating human health effects of long-duration spaceflight. Quite fortuitously, the astronaut selected for the One Year Mission, Scott Kelly, had an identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, also an astronaut and former Navy test pilot. Thus, the Twins Study was conceived — identical twin sons of similar nature and nurture, one spending a year in space, the other firmly grounded on Earth — and the most comprehensive study of the response of the human body to spaceflight ever conducted began. The Twins Study represented many firsts for the space program, including a host of “omics-based” investigations (e.g., genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics), the first test of a vaccine in space, and the first assessments of the space microbiome, and of a biological marker of aging — changes in telomere length over time. Telomeres are the protective “caps” at the ends of our chromosomes that shorten with cell division and thus with age, as well as with a variety of lifestyle factors, stresses, and environmental exposures.
In 2020, marking a new era of human space exploration, the first commercial rocket, SpaceX Falcon 9, launched NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley from U.S. soil in the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, and then returned safely to Earth for reuse. In 2021 we witnessed the first all-civilian mission to orbit (three days), Inspiration4 operated by SpaceX, as well as William Shatner blasting off on a Blue Origin Rocket — the 90-year-old “Captain Kirk” setting a record as the oldest person to fly in space (10 minutes). As the number and diversity of space travelers — and even space tourists — increases in the coming years, a better understanding of how spaceflight affects human health is essential to maintaining individual astronaut performance and health during, and improving disease and aging trajectories following, future exploration missions.
It’s an exciting time for “Trekkies” and earthlings alike — to go where none have gone before, and to live long and prosper along the way. NASA and its commercial partners are rapidly advancing innovative space technologies, and with the recently announced Artemis team of astronauts, plans are to send the first woman and next man back to the moon and establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade. Humankind will then be poised to take the next giant leap — pioneering human exploration of Mars.
Susan M. Bailey, Ph.D. is a professor and radiation cancer biologist in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences at Colorado State University. Bailey’s research program seeks to better understand the influence of long-duration spaceflight on human health and aging, and ultimately how such information can serve to improve healthspan for those on — and off — Earth as well as the planet.
Please join us for our next virtual online presentation March 3 at 10 a.m. when Dr. Bailey will present about the NASA research program involving the aging and space travel aspects.
This column is hosted by the Seniors’ Council of Douglas County. For more information, please visit www.MyDougCoSeniorLife.com, email DCSeniorLife@douglas.co.us or call 303-663-7681.