Wed, 10/28/2015 - 1:40pm
Astronaut Scott Kelly offers his expertise, experience and body to build a knowledge database that will pave the way for trips to Mars, and beyond.
Astronaut Scott Kelly. Photo: NASA Johnson
Astronaut Scott Kelly has accomplished a lot during his 51 years, much of it in non-normal environments. Nearly 2.5 years of Kelly’s life has been spent in extreme environments, either as a naval test pilot experiencing high-G’s in super-sonic military aircrafts or working on science experiments in the International Space Station (ISS)’s zero-G environment. As a NASA astronaut with long-duration experience on space shuttles and the ISS, Kelly volunteered and was selected by NASA, in November 2012, to be its member of a planned Year-in-Space mission. As its member of the planned two-person science-based mission, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) selected veteran cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko. Kelly and Korniyenko were launched to the ISS on March 27, 2015, aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Both are scheduled to return to Kazakhstan in Spring 2016 (342 days).
The Kelly-Korniyenko Year-in-Space mission is unique to space travel as it’s the first time long-term science experiments are being dedicated to understanding how the human body reacts and adapts to the harsh environment of space. Kelly’s mission will be the longest continuous term in space for an astronaut, while Korniyenko’s mission will add to six other cosmonauts’ records who spent 10 to 14 months aboard Russia’s (now-defunct) MIR orbiting spacecraft in the 1990s. The Year-in-Space duration is twice as long as a normal six-month tour aboard the ISS for “traditional” astronauts and cosmonauts, and spans ISS Expeditions 43 to 46.
Scott Kelly also has an identical twin, Mark Kelly, who also was an astronaut and a Captain in the U.S. Navy who became a test pilot and piloted four STS missions to the ISS. Scott and Mark are the first siblings to go into space. They each agreed to become the test and control subjects, respectively, for some of the science experiments being conducted during the Year-in-Space mission. Being identical twins, they have the same genetic makeup and offer an excellent methodology and capability to determine what effects living and working in space have on the body’s genetic makeup. “This is a once-in-a-space-program opportunity,” says John Charles, PhD, Associate Manager for International Science, NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP), reflecting on the strong scientific value of having identical twins perform space medicine experiments.
With these criteria, it became an obvious choice this year for the Editors of R&D Magazine to choose Scott Kelly as our 2015 Scientist of the Year—R&D Magazine’s 50th annual Award, recognizing outstanding researchers for their groundbreaking research, and the knowledge they create to enhance the human condition. Scott is both the subject of these year-long science experiments, and the researcher collecting unique data that will influence generations of space travelers in the future—he is literally this year’s scientist of the year.
“For typical ISS science studies, we usually have specific outcomes in mind, and they’re goal-oriented,” says NASA’s Charles. For Kelly’s Year-in-Space mission, “the [experiment] slate was essentially blank.” As such, NASA offered academic, government and private researchers the opportunity to propose research studies that could be performed with the resources offered by Scott and Mark.
An aurora taken from the International Space Station. Image: NASA Johnson“
Scott will participate in about 450 experiments while on the Year-in-Space mission,” says Julie Robinson, PhD, ISS Program Scientist. “About 700 to 800 researchers are expected to directly work with the data provided by Scott. Along with the comparative medical science investigations with his brother, the experiments Scott will participate in include Earth studies, astrophysical studies and physical science experiments.”
Robinson also notes there is a huge community of researchers who are working on details for travel to Mars and developing the criteria for building a Martian infrastructure. “The scale of the work being created and collected by Scott is invaluable for these efforts,” she says. The knowledge and lessons learned in space also can have direct carryovers to the development of advanced patient care on Earth.
One of the medical science experiments being conducted during the Year-in-Space examines how body fluids shift to the upper body while in a microgravity environment. It’s known the faces of in-orbit personnel get “puffy,” while their legs lose bone mass and get skinny. Previous studies have noted varying visual deficits experienced by up to two-thirds of the orbiting astronauts and cosmonauts, which on long-duration voyages could be a big concern. For one astronaut, the deterioration was so severe that he couldn’t read the checklist for landing on re-enrty—luckily he had it memorized.
One of the hypotheses being evaluated is the shifting of body fluids to the upper body contributes to increased intracranial pressure and subsequent decreased visual capacity. A potential solution developed by the Russians is the creation of a lower body negative pressure suit. The use and testing of this system, however, required moving NASA testing equipment to the Russian Zvezda service module where the large immovable negative pressure suit system is located—not a small undertaking. And, instead of using invasive techniques to measure intracranial pressures, such as drilling into the skull, NASA developed noninvasive optoacoustic devices for this experiment. This noninvasive device could also be used for patients suffering from elevated intracranical pressure on earth. These Year-in-Space experiments are supported by the Henry Ford Medical Center, UC-San Diego and the Wyle Science, Technology and Engineering Group.
Vision experiments are at the top of NASA’s medical concerns. Scott’s lack of serious vision problems was one of the criteria that resulted in NASA’s final approval for his participation in the Year-in-Space program.
Another experiment being evaluated investigates how microgravity affects an astronaut’s DNA and RNA. Taking blood samples from space-borne Scott and Earth-bound Mark at similar intervals throughout the Year-in-Space, as well as during pre-flight and post-flight periods, researchers can determine if gene expression and behavior changes while in space. The body fluid samples taken by Scott are bagged and frozen aboard the ISS and are scheduled to return with Scott next spring for evaluation by a number of researchers and research organizations. Some of this specific DNA/RNA evaluation work is supported by Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell Univ.
NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly corrals the supply of fresh fruit that arrived on the Kounotori 5 H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-5.). Photos: NASA Johnson
Still another experiment proposed by nutritionists at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, creates a biochemical profile of Scott using blood tests to show his internal organ health. Other investigations look to analyze the human molecular response (from blood samples) to the physical, physiological and environmental stresses associated with Scott’s diet, stress, weightlessness and other unique responses to spaceflight. Life in a confined environment, for example, can affect the creation of chemical compounds that tell a human cell what to do and when to do it.
Other space medicine experiments considered for the Year-in-Space include investigations as to how the immune system is affected aboard the ISS; space effects on atherosclerosis; effects on microorganisms within the body; risks of osteoporosis; changes in blood vessels; changes in brain structure and sensory/motor abilities; and the post-flight return of mental and physical abilities.
In addition to blood, urine, saliva and even fecal samples are taken and bagged at regular intervals from both Scott and Mark for the specific experimental comparisons and evaluations that will be performed by various researchers in the post-flight time period. Mark doesn’t have the same diet as Scott, but does follow Scott’s daily 1.5 to 2.0 hrs routine of exercise to keep in a similar physical condition as his brother. Scott’s daily waking routine consists of about a third of the time devoted the Year-in-Space experiments, a third devoted to ISS maintenance concerns and the remainder spent on physical exercise and personal care.
While generating data on the various medical effects noted above, the purpose of these experiments is to help scientists develop countermeasures to offset the negative effects through drugs, new exercise routines, upgraded shielding or artificial gravity systems. Living and working in space has a lot of physical and medical issues, including backaches, bone loss, poor sleep patterns, loss of balance, muscle atrophy, nausea, rashes and post-flight kidney stones to name a few. “You feel bad for the first month and I’ve never felt completely normal,” says Scott.
The Expedition 43 crew gathers aboard the International Space Station to affix their mission patch to the vehicle. In view is Commander Terry Virts (center left), Scott Kelly (top left), Gennady Padalka (top center), Anton Shkaplerov (top right), Mikhail Kornienko (bottom right), Samantha Cristoforetti (bottom center). Photo: NASA Johnson
One of his tweets noted the departure of Expedition 44 crew members on September 11, and the recognition of his elevation to ISS commander for Expeditions 45 and 46, following the departure of ISS commander for Expeditions 43 and 44, Gennadi Padalka. Padalka is the most experienced spaceman in the world with a record 879 days in space over five space missions.
Not all went as expected during the beginning of Scott’s Year-in-Space, further demonstrating the fragility of the systems and potential dangers in which astronauts operate and how changes often have to be made “on the fly.” In April, a Russian Progress supply ship wasn’t able to be controlled by ground controllers and ultimately re-entered the atmosphere and burnt up. The very next resupply mission, a SpaceX system then exploded soon after launch in late-June. Back-up supplies are always maintained so that re-supply failures can be tolerated without endangering the health or safety of the ISS personnel. Following the SpaceX failure, the ISS still had enough supplies to last them through October. But failures of consecutive resupply missions are rare. These consecutive failures slightly affected the sequencing of the Year in Space experiments with substitutions subsequently made and implemented. A Russian supply ship successfully docked with the ISS in mid-July, two weeks after the SpaceX failure.
Scott took all of this in stride and continued his experiments, tweeting and instructional videos.