Twin Astronauts Test Genetics Microgravity
August 7, 2013

Identical Twin Astronauts Help Study Genetic Effects Of Microgravity

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

In March 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly will be launched into space to spend one year at the International Space Station (ISS), NASA's first year-long mission there. While he's there, doctors and scientists on Earth will be examining him and  his twin brother to study the effects of a long space mission. By the end of the mission Scott will have logged 540 days in space.

Mark Kelly, Scott's brother, also has quite a bit of experience in space after spending 180 days flying high above the Earth in orbit. But following the January 2011 assassination attempt against his wife, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he left NASA to tend to family matters. The brothers have decided to offer themselves up as human guinea pigs to the program in order to help NASA better understand the effects of microgravity on the human body at the genetic level. Though they're careful to mention this study will be strictly observational in nature, NASA doctors will be gathering samples from the Kelly brothers to understand how different these similar human bodies will be after the year-long trek.

"A study like this is going to be mostly observational, just see what we can find out. It's not the kind of research that we in the human research program normally like to do," explained John Charles, chief scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, speaking to Discovery News.

"We like to do the things that are goal-oriented and have a specific outcome expected so we can use the information to advise engineers how to design better rocket ships and so forth."

With the Kelly brothers having volunteered to be used as test subjects, NASA is now accepting research proposals for the project which they're calling "Differential Effects on Homozygous Twin Astronauts Associated with Differences in Exposure to Spaceflight Factors."

Blood samples, cheek swabs and saliva samples will be collected from both brothers before, during and after Scott's year-long flight in 2015. The brothers Kelly will also be psychologically and physically evaluated throughout the process - so long as these tests don't interfere with the overall experiments of the mission, says NASA. Each brother will receive the same treatment and give the same samples at the same time, but one brother will be planted firmly on solid ground while the other orbits above the earth in outer space.

"This is sort of our first foray into the genetic aspects of spaceflight. This really is the wave of the future, and it's not all that new, but it is new to my way of thinking," said Charles.

"The opportunity was suggested by the fact that we have twins, but the opportunity will not be limited to the twins. Since we are all humans and we all have certain genes in common, there may well be insights that can be gained that have not been investigated yet."

According to FloridaToday, the whole thing was the twins' idea.

As Scott Kelly and NASA scientist John Charles were discussing which questions might be asked in the interviews leading up to his flight, Scott wondered what could be said if somebody asked about "the twins thing."

"I said 'I can't imagine how that might be of any real usefulness, so let's not worry about. It's a non-issue,'" said Charles, retelling the moment.

He told his colleagues about the idea in passing, and they thought the study would be a great idea.

"They said, 'Well, wait a second, there might be something to that.' So I got to eat crow..."

Scott Kelly will be joined on his year-long trip by Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.