NASA has announced plans to explore a new frontier by conducting its first-ever twin astronaut study. The study participants involved are veteran astronauts and identical twin brothers Scott and Mark Kelly. Scott Kelly will undertake a one-year mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in March 2015, while his twin sibling, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, will remain on Earth to serve as the experimental control group. The study will observe any differences detected in the twin brothers physiologic and mental responses in space versus Earth-bound effects. The overall purpose of this study is to evaluate the effects of spaceflight and weightlessness on the human body.
Scott Kelly is considered the lesser known of the twins given that Mark Kelly is the husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously wounded during an assassination attempt in January 2011. In June 2011, Mark Kelly retired from NASA and the Navy to spend more time with his injured wife. Both brothers have extensive training and have logged many hours in space over several missions.
NASA announced it will fund a total of 10 experiments that make up the overall twin astronaut study on the Kelly brothers. The study requirements will include frequent blood, saliva, urine, and stool samples from the 50-year-old twins, as well as regularly scheduled physiological and psychological evaluations before, during, and after the one-year space mission. Scott Kelly’s stay aboard the ISS will be the longest to date by an American astronaut. A typical assignment to the space station is usually six months, and only a handful of humans have remained in space for one year or longer. These individuals were Russian cosmonauts assigned to the Mir space station. NASA contends that Kelly’s extended voyage will provide researchers with more specific data on how spaceflight affects the human body. There are specific aspects the space agency wants to compile more data on related to the effects of weightlessness such as genetic changes due to exposure from space radiation, bacterial changes in body systems, and changes in bone density and overall body physiology, as well as behavioral thinking processes. Additionally, the mission could provide space agency officials insight into the tolerance levels of astronauts and how they would fare on other extended missions.
NASA’s announcement of their groundbreaking twin astronaut study could provide other benefits. The study could yield additional data that will prove essential in the space agency’s next significant endeavor. The agency is preparing for a manned mission to Mars that they believe could involve three years of space-time and exposure astronauts to extreme amounts of space radiation. Given the small sample size, the space agency does not expect these twin studies to provide concrete data on how spaceflight effects humans, but it could give researchers indicators to focus on in future larger sample studies.
Another set of non-NASA related identical twins made news this week when they announced their plans to participate in a Bitcoin-funded Virgin Galactic space flight. These adventurers are the Winklevoss brothers, who are successful investment capitalists, and they are paying the Bitcoin equivalent of $250,000 for their experience. However, this excursion will be on a different scale than the NASA mission. Virgin Galactic is offering trips into suborbital space, as opposed to reaching the Earth’s orbit on NASA shuttles. The other significant difference is that the Winklevoss twins will be exploring space together on the same flight and could be the first identical siblings to fly in space simultaneously. This space flight will involve launching a vehicle called the Space Ship Two from a high-altitude central control vessel called White Knight Two. The Space Ship Two can accommodate two pilots and six passengers per flight.
NASA’s announcement of their twin astronaut study has generated a lot of excitement and discussion about the possibilities the data from this study could generate. It could potentially revolutionize how space travel is done and help revamp NASA’s policies and procedures moving forward. Moreover, it could help revise training and preparedness models, which could better prepare astronauts and help reduce the negative effects of space travel.
By Leigh Haugh