"Weightlessness posed particular challenges for a human research program
April 11, 2019 3:15 PM   Subscribe

The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight. Astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly were the two members of NASA's yearlong 'Twin Study' to determine the effects of long-term living in microgravity. Are Humans Fit For Space?
posted by the man of twists and turns (38 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
NASA definitely needs to repeat this experiment with women. Because I've got a daughter who wants to be an astronaut and another daughter who is willing to be a control group.
posted by straight at 3:20 PM on April 11 [18 favorites]

(A senior MIT biochemical engineer was more dismissive: “What a stunt,” he sneered. “A real control would be to compare the NASA twins with a second set, where one brother lived in an American suburb while the other was put in a loud, frightening Iraqi prison for a year.”)

What a pleasant and compassionate fellow.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:37 PM on April 11 [18 favorites]

At that meeting I said, ‘Hey, if somebody asks a question about my brother Mark, do you guys have any intention of doing genetic studies on us?’ And they said no. But a couple of weeks later, I had another meeting with these same guys, and they had reached out to some university researchers who thought there was some value in the idea.”

NASA's ability to be so competent and utterly incompetent at the same time truly makes them the most hilarious representative of humanity.

Seriously how did "Oh, this guy has an identical twin?" not occur to anyone else??
posted by bleep at 3:55 PM on April 11 [22 favorites]

Hey, the good news is, you have been selected to go to Mars...
posted by Oyéah at 4:00 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

I feel bad that one of em got perma-dumbed from too much space.
posted by The Power Nap at 4:38 PM on April 11

Actual flesh-Human space exploration is a ridiculous and ultimately futile endeavor; to successfully become a spacefaring race we will need to either modify ourselves into something that will no longer be human or we will have to create intelligent robotic substitutes.

Since we have already sent robotic emissaries to another world, one of which has been operational for 8 years, another whose lifespan was 15 years, all without any need for earth based resources (save the occasional reprogramming assistance), and all the astronauts we have sent on long term space deployments seem to suffer some long-term cognitive and physical impairments, the choice looks fairly straightforward.

Sorry meat, you gotta stay in your cozy gravity well.
posted by Chrischris at 4:55 PM on April 11 [8 favorites]

The obvious workaround is FTL travel - surely that's just around the corner, right?
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:01 PM on April 11

Years ago I read Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir by Jerry Linenger, an account of Linenger's time aboard the Mir space station. That pretty much cured me of any lingering desire I had to become an astronaut. Mir wasn't perhaps the best example of a space habitat (Linenger arrived just before the Mir fire) but reading how Linenger went from running double marathons before leaving Earth to a near-invalid upon returning did not make the trip seem appealing to me.
posted by AndrewStephens at 5:05 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

Yeah, but the thing about FTL is that if you think free fall is hard on the human body...
posted by straight at 5:06 PM on April 11

I'm not convinced humans are fit for Earth.
posted by webmutant at 5:06 PM on April 11 [7 favorites]

The obvious workaround is FTL travel - surely that's just around the corner, right?

Yup, it's right on schedule: 20 years after the 20 years until practical fusion power.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:12 PM on April 11 [9 favorites]

There is a good science fiction story in here. Cell telomeres shorten with age. This guy's lengthened while he was in orbit, as if he were getting younger. However, when he returned, they quickly went returned to their former length. Many cells showed shortened or missing telomeres.

Oisin, Finn McCool's poet, goes off to fairyland with Niam of the Golden Hair. When he wants to go home for a visit, Niam warns him never to step down off of his horse.

"And as Oisin looked upon their puny forms, marred by toil and care, and at the stone which they feebly strove to heave from its bed, he was filled with pity, and thought to himself, "Not such were even the churls of Erin when I left them for the Land of Youth" and he stooped from his saddle to help them. He set his hand to the boulder, and with a mighty heave he lifted it from where it lay and set it rolling down the hill. And the men raised a shout of wonder and applause; but their shouting changed in a moment into cries of terror and dismay, and they fled, jostling and overthrowing each other to escape from the place of fear, for a marvel horrible to see had taken place. For Oisin's saddle-girth had burst as he heaved the Stone and he fell headlong to the ground. In an instant the white steed had vanished from their eyes like a wreath of mist, and that which rose, feeble and staggering, from the ground was no youthful warrior, but a man stricken with extreme old age, white-bearded and withered, who stretched out groping hands and moaned with feeble and bitter cries."
posted by ckridge at 5:40 PM on April 11 [16 favorites]

I hope someday we have female twin astronauts so we can do this all over again.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:58 PM on April 11

I was just coming here to make a FPP, but it was kind of thin and could just as easily live as a comment on this one, so here's what it would have been:

In space, no one can hear you squeak.

In the opening passage of Alan Dean Foster's novelization of the movie Alien, he mentions how while in cryo-sleep, Jones the cat would dream of "gravity-bound mice". These are not those mice. They're the other kind.
posted by radwolf76 at 6:13 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]

Interesting aside from the New York Times article on this:
(Mark Kelly, who retired from NASA in 2011 and is the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, is running for John McCain’s Senate seat in Arizona.)
posted by doctornemo at 6:33 PM on April 11 [6 favorites]

Sorry meat, you gotta stay in your cozy gravity well.

You're not the boss of me.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:48 PM on April 11 [10 favorites]

I've assumed for a while that travel to other planets would involve changing our actual bodies, because our natural meat cages are too reliant on a narrow range of conditions only available on Earth. Not just atmosphere but trace elements and so on. Even with FTL we'd need to either grow new bodies or decant ourselves into cyber bodies or stored consciousness or something.
posted by emjaybee at 7:20 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

I think I read Scott Kelly's book and apparently he had to sell NASA on sending him into space after they were going to send someone else. Like "but I play oboe!" when trying to get off a college waitlist, except now it's "I have a twin!".
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:47 PM on April 11

The obvious workaround is FTL travel - surely that's just around the corner, right?

Two weeks to ship, sources say (pace Mr.Encyclopedia)
posted by mwhybark at 10:54 PM on April 11

Alan Dean Foster's movie novelizations contained a wit and an insight that drove them into a real better than what the outcoming product should have been. I read a zillion of them when I was in grade, middle, high school and then it sort of faded out during college. Did he fade out, or did I?

Oh holy shit, he did the novelization of The Force Awakens. I should read that.
posted by hippybear at 10:56 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]

Everything about twins is cool (says the child of a twin).
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:02 PM on April 11

Interesting aside from the New York Times article on this:
(Mark Kelly, who retired from NASA in 2011 and is the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, is running for John McCain’s Senate seat in Arizona.)

The whole Kelly/Giffords connection is part of what makes me think we aren't living in reality anymore but Hollywood Screenwriter Reality.
posted by hippybear at 11:05 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]

Why no artificial gravity? We've seen spinning space stations in science fiction as far back as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), if not earlier. Are there some major engineering challenges?
posted by swr at 1:19 AM on April 12

Alan Dean Foster's movie novelizations contained a wit and an insight that drove them into a real better than what the outcoming product should have been.

He took the nonsense plot to Carpenter & O'Bannon's Dark Star, and made it make sense. After you're done reading his Force Awakens, I can recommend that one.
posted by radwolf76 at 3:22 AM on April 12

Why no artificial gravity?

First, centrifugal gravity isn't as easy to work in as you may think. I remember in high school we did the sums on what it would take just to avoid weird blood pressure differences in coriolis forces, and the station would need to have a swinging radius of about 200m. That's a lot of material to fling into orbit for an un-tested environment.

Second, you need to use fuel for station-keeping. These orbits aren't perfect circles unaffected by matter or energy: they decay. And to arrest that decay you need to use fuel. Satellites tend to be low-mass and use cool electrically charged xenon Hall-effect engines that make cool green glowing rings in the promo photos (though likely not to the naked eye in a vacuum). A space station is bigger, and needs to give a bit of kick to get it back in the right lane.

So you'd need to arrest rotation for these station-keeping burns, and fire it back up again later. And all the while you'd have this huge lop-sided structure in space unless you'd finally built your perfect Von Braun Ring Station, so you're probably straining the rotation axles badly each burn.

I would love to see these inflatable bigelow modules swung around on cables as low-but-not-micro-gravity sleeping quarters to help maintain muscle mass, but the logistics of getting bootstrapped on this make it difficult overall. Spinning your station around ends up adding complexity and multiple points of failure. It's really not a solved problem yet.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:54 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

> He took the nonsense plot to Carpenter & O'Bannon's Dark Star, and made it make sense.

Huh? Made perfect sense already.

Now, I need a GHF reading on the gravity correction…
posted by Pinback at 5:22 AM on April 12

Sleeping in gravity has no effect on muscle mass, only exercise does. That's one of those interesting space lessons which surprised us.
posted by BeeDo at 5:38 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

Don't need to spin the full sized station, just build a bit bigger diameter and have the astronautes run and make their own gravity!
posted by sammyo at 5:46 AM on April 12

I like the "subject location during study" graph in this image. Also the note about Mark suddenly grokking one of the cognitive tests halfway though on figure 10. "The AM plot shows that HR (green) had a major insight mid-mission relative to the rules that govern the AM that TW (blue) did not have (50% is performance at chance level on the AM)." Does it mention anywhere why the paper refers to them as TW and HR though?

Re artificial gravity, you could just* have a flat space station, a tether on the roof and a counterweight. But even with an offset axis it would involve a lot of costly dead weight, having to travel up and down the cable every time you wanted to dock would be a pain in the bum, and it'd be terrifyingly vulnerable to a bit of debris sending you flying off into the void or the ground.

*"just" is doing a lot of heavy lifting here.
posted by lucidium at 8:00 AM on April 12

*"just" is doing a lot of heavy lifting

I see what you did there.
posted by Mogur at 8:21 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

They need twins but, the twins are a human and a robot. As robotics improve the human robot interface vastly improves, until the astronaut programs the robotic mind with as much of their identity as possible with a Mr. Data like, computational ability, then the robot behaves like the grounded astronauts metallic skin job, and the astronaut has a VR connection that puts them right behind the robot's visual and other sensorial arrays. The astronaut totally directs the robot's attention. Everything is downloaded all the time, and in view; and everyone is on board who has a stake, in fact anyone. Everyone's questions get answered out of some long queue. Humans have this gross colonial arrogance about attaching ground that does not belong to them, by inserting vested DNA first. What an unfortunate history.
posted by Oyéah at 9:06 AM on April 12

In space, no one can hear you squeak.
I'm now going to spend the rest of the day trying to remember which novel includes human characters who speculate about what cats in space habitats who have never seen a prey animal dream about. (Something by Vinge, maybe?)

On topic - as a hopelessly optimistic human spaceflight enthusiast, I'm tempted to argue that most medical studies are actually focused on the question, "are humans fit for returning to Earth from space?" That's a question with immediate practical implications, but isn't as interesting a question as, "are humans fit for space?"

I don't know nearly enough to know whether or not the telomere length thing is as exciting as it sounds. Would love to hear someone with detailed knowledge weigh in.
posted by eotvos at 11:42 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]

My spine won't stop wondering if sleeping in zero gravity would make it hurt less.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:13 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]

I don't have a spine that tells me its deep thoughts or existential speculations. Mine just likes to say stuff like "Make no bones about it!" or "I am the backbone of this relationship!" ...Or "I'll be back."

I guess you could say, my back is kind of a pain.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:56 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]

I know I've hit a nerve when it doesn't answer back.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:13 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]

Are Humans Fit For Space?

posted by Pouteria at 4:16 AM on April 13

eotvos: I don't have detailed knowledge about telomeres and such, but my understanding is that when DNA is reproduced by being cut into two RNA strips which then find mates for their various bases creating a new strip of identical DNA, there are bits at the end of the DNA that are the telomeres.

These telomeres sort of tell the molecules which zip the DNA apart (much like a zipper) where to begin and end, and where to latch on to begin.

As we age, the telomeres are the most fragile and likely to break off part of our DNA, and so as we get older, our DNA ends up being less accurately reproduced due to inaccuracy in the unzipping process becoming more common.

So longer telomeres means more accuracy in the DNA reproduction, basically stopping the aging process in this one single way (which does have implications across a broad spectrum of problems which arise from aging).
posted by hippybear at 4:26 AM on April 13

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