More Than Just a Year in Space

September 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

When confronting the problems of long-distance space travel we have the usual culprits: the impossibility of travel at light-speed, the minuscule breadth of human lifetimes (generation ships, anyone?). Science fiction already has all the solutions. Science doesn’t. But some topics even science fiction doesn’t seem to explore very often. What if humans simply deteriorate? What if our bodies are too fragile to withstand the unique environmental conditions of space? Late March this year NASA launched a mission to determine just that.

Most NASA missions on the International Space Station (ISS) last only 4 to 6 months. Scott Kelly, a NASA astronaut, and Mikhail Kornienko, a Russian cosmonaut, are spending an entire year up in orbit. Yes, an astronaut and a cosmonaut are the same thing. I know you were wondering.

The goal of the One Year Mission is to see how human bodies would be affected if they were to endure a future mission to Mars (and beyond?). Due to the unfortunate lack of ships with hyperdrive, such a mission would last 500 days or longer. Scientists are investigating medical, psychological, and biomedical challenges that may arise. Muscle atrophy, vision impairment, and bone loss are among subjects of concern. The below video provides a short summary regarding the necessity of a good physical regiment while in space. Essentially, in a zero-gravity environment the human body is in a resting position, which is what induces some of the negative effects, such as bone loss.

Another awesome aspect of the experiment is what is known as the ‘Twin Study’. Scott Kelly has an identical twin brother, Mark, who is remaining on Earth. Interesting fact: Mark Kelly is actually a retired NASA astronaut. The two brothers will be the subject of several comparative genetic studies, trying to determine subtle changes that may occur as a result of zero-gravity. This is a joint effort between NASA and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and has 10 different areas of interest. Among the topics being researched are things such as differential effects on telomeres, DNA and RNA methylation, and sequencing of the microbiome in their gastrointestinal tracts. These were chosen from among 40 research applications.

But the two astronauts aren’t just loitering in space for a year. They are conducting nearly 400 different experiments! The majority of these will serve to advance not only deep-space travel, but also technology on Earth. For instance, Veggie, a plant growth facility, helps provide astronauts with nutritious food, but may also improve farming practices down on the planet. Studies on the effects of delayed communication, especially in the event of emergency, may also refine procedure for Earth-based teams in remote locales. The Amine Swingbed, a piece of engineering designed to remove carbon dioxide and moisture, will provide astronauts with breathable air while taking up less space than earlier systems. On Earth, a potential use is the removal of harmful gases.

It will be exciting to see the results of the mission once it is complete. Undoubtedly it will help with NASA’s plans to send a manned spacecraft to Mars by the 2030s. And after that, who knows where we’ll go?

To learn more about the mission and its progress, check out this link:

-Confused Vulcan


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§ One Response to More Than Just a Year in Space

  • crmitchie says:

    I really enjoyed learning more about the real world implications of long-distance space travel. Many of the stories we read seem so plausible that it’s easy to get wrapped up in their fictional universes without considering what kind of effects proposed theories would have in actuality. Learning a bit more about the potential physical toll of space travel on astronauts first hand made some of the stories we’ve read seem more credible to me in that there is a lot of overlap between what the authors described and what scientists predict will actually happen. This also gave me a greater appreciation for the innovation that some of these authors must have possessed to be able to develop such outlandish yet somehow believable universes.

    While I have definitely considered the plausibility of many scenarios we’ve read about, your piece is the first that provides an actual expedition testing some of the theories presented in class. Despite the fact that we still know so little about the effects of long-distance space travel, it seems that most scientists agree that the effects will be similar to those described in some of the stories we’ve read. I’ll be interested to follow the rest of the One-Year Mission to see if the actual effects of extended space travel continue to align with the predictions outlined in our readings.

    As I continued to use your piece to analyze some of our recent readings, one of your remarks in particular resonated with me: science fiction has all of the solutions while science does note. This alludes to the idea we’ve touched on in class that some science fiction can potentially inform real world scientific progress. It makes me wonder how many NASA scientists working on the One-Year Mission found inspiration among the pages of science fiction stories. It seems that science fiction is, in a sense, a platform for presenting hypotheses waiting to be tested.



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