HOUSTON – The team of researchers who studied an astronaut’s year in space, comparing findings to those of his twin brother on Earth, spoke Monday about the project and plans for the future of space travel.
Astronaut Scott Kelly spent 340 days at the International Space Station, as part of a program that aimed to study the effects of long-term space travel. Researchers compared Kelly’s condition, upon his return in March 2016, to that of his identical twin brother, astronaut Mark Kelly.
Ten scientists, one from each of the research teams, spoke about the monumental project Monday at Space Center Houston.
"We want to build on what we've learned,” said Dr. Steven Platts, deputy chief scientist of the Human Research Program at NASA.
Overall, while Scott Kelly’s body changed to accommodate the long stint in space, his conditions returned to where they stood on Earth once he returned, with a few exceptions.
"They saw changes during the flight and then they recovered when they came back,” Platts said.
That’s a good thing, according to researchers, because it contributes to the theory that people can travel to farther areas of the last frontier -- possibly Mars.
Here are a few highlights from Monday’s conversation:
1. Ten research teams contributed.
That totaled 84 researchers from universities across the country. The research covered two categories.
2. Space travel puts the body through a lot.
One can imagine. In fact, some of Scott Kelly’s features that changed in space returned to normal as soon as he returned to Earth.
"We found stress almost from everything everybody studied. A bunch of teams looked at different molecules, including ours, and we all found indicators of stress,” said Dr. Tejaswini Mishra, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University's genetics department.
The teams examined everything from how Scott Kelly's DNA was impacted, to his cholesterol levels, which increased. His vision got worse and his immune system made adjustments but performed well.
3. Researchers were surprised when examining Kelly’s DNA.
A component of one’s DNA structure, telomeres, turned heads once Scott Kelly returned to Earth.
As we age, telomeres get shorter -- but his increased in space.
"Some people may think fountain of youth -- no,” Platts explained.
“Just because something happened ... it's not the same as having something similar on Earth. It’s its own unique thing,” Platts said.
Researchers hope future long-term space travel will help provide an answer as to why.
4. While Kelly’s body changed, the pace at which it changed slowed the longer he remained in space.
That likely means the body does what’s required to adjust to life in space.
Future proposed trips will look into that.
5. Researchers hope to conduct five more long term trips to space.
"The timeline is we hope to start the end 2020, beginning 2021, for those, and they would be consecutive missions. Five consecutive missions,” Platts said.
Proposals are still being finalized, including the specifics of what researchers will study next time. That’s based on the many lingering questions that remain in the cosmos.
Research would benefit heavily from future trips, officials said. For one thing, having a stronger sample size, by adding more astronauts, strengthens researchers' theories on whether the body can handle a year at the international space station -- or even farther: This research would come in handy to determine if humans can travel to Mars.