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Arthur C. Clarke got it wrong. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the crew’s biggest enemy was the computer HAL, which eventually turned rogue during the mission to Jupiter.

Yet, there was possibly a far greater danger facing the crew, namely, their own bodies, a threat not touched on by Clarke.

 Scott Kelly, in the International Space Station, is half of NASA's Twins Study.

Scott Kelly, in the International Space Station, is half of NASA’s Twins Study.

We simply don’t know the full extent of the risk to human biology that might result from long-term space flight. But we do know two things: gene expression—the activity within human cells—changes in zero gravity; and during a space flight lasting many years, these changes could have catastrophic consequences for a person’s health.

However, the data is inconclusive.

The good news is that it shouldn’t be long before we have a much clearer idea about how our bodies would cope with a long-term journey in space.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has launched the Human Research Program (HRP), which is taking place in the International Space Station (ISS), the principal sponsors of which include the United States, Japan, and Russia.

The HRP, which dates back to 2004, when NASA refocused its space program on exploration, aims to unearth the best methods and technologies “to support safe, productive human space travel.”

Dr. Chris Mason speaks at the Innovative City Forum in Tokyo.

Dr. Chris Mason speaks at the Innovative City Forum in Tokyo.

Covering a wide range of topics, not least the effect of space on our genetics, a myriad of scientists and researchers support the HRP, including Dr. Chris Mason, associate professor of Physiology and Biophysics at Weil Cornell Medical College, who is deeply involved in the program’s genes study.

Mason visited Tokyo in the fall to attend the Innovative City Forum and to discuss urban areas of the future.

His presentation, entitled “Building New Cities, Molecule by Molecule,” highlighted how urban microbiomes—the assemblages of bacteria in built-up areas—impact our lives.

He also covered how urban design should be sympathetic to the planet’s biochemical activity.

It was toward the end of his talk that Mason got to his big passion: spaceflight or, in his words, the final frontier of genetics research.

He talked about the Twins Study, a part of the HRP to which he is connected.

Speaking exclusively to The Journal, Mason said genetic research is key to the success of future space exploration, which he considers fundamental to the long-term survival of the human species.

“Some people may question the money spent by NASA, yet several studies have noted that the billions of dollars it has consumed have led to about a 33 percent return on investment.

“But beyond the extraordinary benefits to the economy, a lot of the [return on investment] on the Twins Study may be intangible; we are talking about the future of humanity here, and clearly we have to exist as a species for there even to be a market to realize any opportunities.”

Mason became involved in the Twins Study when his submission was selected by NASA in 2014 as one of 10 experiments to look at the effect of space flight on genes.

Like the other nine, Mason’s investigation would compare the biology of two identical twins, one of whom would be living on the low-Earth orbit ISS for a year, and the other twin down on earth.

It just so happened the identical twins were none other than veteran NASA astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly—Scott being the one living in space.

For Mason, involvement in the Twins Study was the culmination of a journey that officially began in 2010, but can be traced back to his childhood. “In 2010, I sent NASA an unsolicited proposal saying we should start looking at genetics in space,” he said.

“The cost of DNA sequencing had dropped significantly by this point, and President [Barack] Obama had become a vocal supporter of personalized medicine based on gene sequencing.

“At the time, NASA had just started banking astronaut blood and genes, but didn’t yet store the samples appropriately for all genomics experiments.”

Nothing came of the proposal; however, Mason was in a good position when the official request for proposals for the Twins Study came out in 2014.

“I already had my application written. It was all there. I just had to send it in again,” he added.

This time it was a success, and it was a major boost for Mason personally.

“I, like many, went to space camp in childhood so I’d thought about being an astronaut as a kid. I did some astronaut training and dreamed a little about spaceflight, but I decided I wanted to work in genetics.

“The wonderful thing about being chosen for the Twins Study was that it combined two of my passions.”

JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui conducts experiments in the Kibo experiment module, which is part of ISS.

JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui conducts experiments in the Kibo experiment module, which is part of ISS.

The title of Mason’s experiment is “The Landscape of DNA and RNA Methylation Before, During, and After Human Space Travel.”

As part of the investigation, the twin brothers will give blood samples before, during, and after the mission.

Mason and co-investigators will study the samples to see if Scott Kelly’s DNA (his genetic hardware) and RNA (his genetic software) change during space travel.

The results will be compared with those of his brother, who will be the control subject in the experiment.

“We expect to witness gene expression changes, since our genes alter under stress. But we will get to see the totality of these changes at a molecular level during spaceflight.”

What could result if your genetic expressions went haywire?

The answer: cancer—when cell activity becomes so abnormal that serious disease results. NASA wants to understand the risks of this happening to humans in spaceflight.

“Given we’ll see genomes under a lot of stress, we’ll be better able to understand the risks from peculiar genomes related to aggressive cancers in zero or low gravity environments,” Mason explained.

It is almost nine months since Scott Kelly was sent up to the ISS in a Russian Soyuz space capsule, and Mason’s work began.

Many of the results have not yet been publicly released, but Mason said plenty of the data support his hypotheses on changes to cell activity.

“We’ve seen the changes in RNA expressions that we expected to see, and we are witnessing differences between the twins in their gene expression levels and their microbes.

The data is providing us with a better window into what changes go on in astronauts’ bodies.”

Mason said the Twins Study will not provide all the answers. “This is the first step on a long journey towards a better understanding of the biology and physiology of long-term spaceflight.

“We need a much better understanding of what happens to the body at a molecular level before missions can go beyond low orbits and the moon to asteroids and then Mars,” he explained.

“This is the most detailed molecular portrait to date of what happens in a body: DNA, RNA, proteins, small molecules, lipids, blood . . . bio data. It will be an extraordinary set of data.”

Scott Kelly with US President Barack Obama

Scott Kelly with US President Barack Obama

Someone with whom Mason is working closely at NASA is John B. Charles, associate manager for international science for the HRP.

Charles has coordinated all of the NASA-sponsored biomedical, biological and microgravity science investigations as mission scientist for American astronaut missions on Mir, STS-95, John Glenn’s Shuttle flight, and STS-107, Columbia’s last mission in January 2003.

In an interview with The Journal, he said the results of the HRP are expected to pack quite a punch.

“HRP,s funding is minuscule compared with [that of] the other programs in NASA’s portfolio, but HRP’s products will enable future space exploration beyond low earth orbit, both by NASA and by its international partners.”

Charles said it was the first time biomedical research had become a priority for NASA.

“Other spaceflight programs such as Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle incorporated biomedical research, but it was usually for the protection of the participating crew members, and—with a few notable exceptions—almost always an afterthought.

“NASA’s Skylab program was a major effort to address biomedical risks for future missions, and it formed the foundation for subsequent space shuttle research and for many of our current efforts, but the HRP has far exceeded previous efforts in terms of scope, endurance, and total funding.”

Charles makes clear the HRP reflects the success of the ISS initiative. It is thanks to contributing nations such as Japan and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) that the Twins Study experiments can go ahead.

The ISS is part of Japan’s manned space program. While JAXA is not playing a direct role in the Twins Study, its Japanese Experiment Module, called Kibo, stores samples from the astronauts in the module’s “Minus-Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS,” also known as MELFI.

Lance Gatling, a defense and aerospace markets advisor, said, “Japan has joined the ISS in a big way and continues to support the program with a significant amount of manpower and financial support.”

Indeed, the government of Japan increased the total JAXA budget for 2015 to $1.54 billion from $1.3 billion in 2014, an increase of roughly $21 million, according to a January 15 press release.

Kibo was Japan’s first contribution to the ISS. The agency designed it as a research facility for a wide variety of scientific, medical, and educational experiments.

Kibo, which means “hope” in Japanese, has its own mission control room at the Tsukuba Space Center, in Tsukuba Science City, Ibaraki prefecture. Its two major components are a pressurized module (PM) and an exposed facility (EF).

The PM contains 10 experimental racks to support biological experiments that can be anything from growing protein crystals in zero gravity to creating artificial red blood cells as possible substitutes for use in blood transfusions.

The EF is essentially an external platform that can hold up to 10 experiment payloads at a time outside Kibo.

According to Gatling, “This is where they place materials and electronics to test them in the vacuum of space with its radiation and dramatic changes in temperature.

“One goal is to see if you can use standard electronics out there. Currently, they use very specialized electronics in space, which are very costly to produce.”

Gatling says Japan’s involvement in the ISS has led to some successes, but a question hangs over whether the space program delivers better returns than earth-bound investigations.

Nevertheless, the government of Japan and the Japanese public at large seem to be fans of the country’s space program.

“I think Japanese people are engaged in the ISS program. You can see the excitement, particularly among children, when the topic is raised.”

Gatling also praises the work of the Japanese space agency. “JAXA operates with a relatively small budget but remains committed to the space program over the long term.”

Just this year, JAXA announced it aimed to land an unmanned spacecraft on the surface of the moon by 2018, as reported on CNN in May. “It will be interesting to see how Japan positions itself among space nations in the future, with its moon landing mission.

“JAXA is also using its expertise to assist developing nations and their own space programs,” he said.

What’s clear is that we are in the midst of another exciting chapter in the history of human exploration.

To paraphrase Isaac Newton: we may seem like children playing on the seashore, discovering a smoother pebble or a pretty shell here and there, while the great ocean of truth lies undiscovered before us. Mason agrees.

“It’s time for us to start determining how we’re going to visit the planets and places we know are out there, and to explore that ocean of the unknown,” he said.



Richard Jolley is an IT and business writer in Tokyo.


“One goal is to see if you can use standard electronics [in space, instead of very costly specialized equipment.]”