by Callam Davidson
Space travel rarely fails to capture the human imagination. Yuri Gagarin first escaped the Earth’s atmosphere in 1961, and 57 years later, our appetite for extra-terrestrial exploration shows no sign of slowing down. Having recently had the chance to hear from an astronaut at Pint of Science festival’s November astronaut tour, I am a proud convert to space geekery, so much so that I’ve written this piece. My research has led me to discover that, although it may look like a hoot floating weightless on board the International Space Station, space-travel isn’t for the faint-hearted… It actually presents some pretty serious health hazards, and here I’ll shed some light on the role scientists have in preventing them.
One of the major stresses the human body undergoes in space is also probably the one we’d all like to experience (just for an hour or two): weightlessness. Astronauts experience daily life in a microgravity environment, yet an extended time (anything over one month) in this environment starts to cause significant changes in muscle mass and bone density. On Earth, gravity ensures that just by walking from the sofa to the fridge, you’re at least having a bit of a workout. But in space, a float across the room places practically zero stress on your muscles, meaning they start to shrink. Astronauts do their best to combat these changes through strict daily exercise regimes and a strict nutritional programme. No two-for-Tuesday Pizza deals in space, astronauts instead must stick to a diet based on the food that can be stowed on board. Suitable nutrition is vital not only for physical wellbeing, but also psychosocial interactions with other crew members. The last thing anyone needs is a hangry astronaut!
Scientific study is key to preventing health problems for astronauts, and one relatively recent space study made headlines for its unusual sample. Scott and Mark Kelly hold the unique position of being identical twin astronauts (imagine the sibling rivalry in the Kelly household…). Most siblings are used to being compared to one another, often by pushy teachers or family, but not many can claim to have been compared under control conditions by NASA. In 2015, Scott was launched into space to spend one year aboard the International Space Station, while his brother Mark stayed at home and watched TV boxsets (he probably did more than that). This gave scientists an incredible opportunity; to compare a range of biochemical and genetic markers from genetically identical participants – the variable being space travel! Pint of Science Festival was lucky enough to host a live link-up with the space station, and chat to Scott live during this mission, an amazing experience for all present and our personal record for a long-distance call. It was preferable to covering his travel expenses.
Preliminary findings from the twin study make for surprising and fascinating reading.
Despite the demanding nature of space travel, the countermeasures enforced by NASA (a low-calorie and nutrient rich diet and regular exercise routines) appear to make space a pretty healthy place to be. Scott’s folate status increased, and his body mass decreased, both indicators of a healthier lifestyle. Even more surprisingly, the telomeres on Scott’s chromosomes (protective ‘caps’ found at the ends of our DNA) were seen to grow while he was in space – again likely benefits of his healthier lifestyle. Will the astronaut diet soon be a fad at your local gym? It wasn’t all plain-sailing for Scott though. Cell-stress and inflammation were increased, likely due to the oxygen deprivation, increased radiation and caloric restriction enjoyed in space. Luckily for Scott though, most of these changes returned to normal after six months back on Earth.
NASA published plenty of information about the studies it carries out beyond the Earth’s atmosphere., but if you’re keen to hear more direct from the astronauts themselves, Pint of Science festival has a treat for you… In collaboration with the International Space Schools Education Trust, we’re hosting another Astronaut Tour! From January 17th-23rd 2019, British-born Astronaut Michael Foale will be visiting Hull, Lincoln and Nottingham to share stories from over 373 days in space. As the first Briton to perform a space-walk, and one of the astronauts responsible for saving the Russian Mir Space Station when it was tumbling out of control, it’s fair to say he has an impressive CV. Come and join us for an evening with an astronaut in January – if you aren’t already blown away by space travel, we’ll make sure you are by the end of the night!
Callam is director of Pint of Science UK. He got his PhD in cardiovascular science from the University of Edinburgh, and previously worked for the Edinburgh International Science Festival as a performer across Scotland and in the United Arab Emirates. In his spare time, he enjoys home-brewing, which is quite fitting.
Read more on space in the latest ‘Science in Space’ issue of The Biochemist here