American astronaut Scott Kelly will begin a yearlong stint aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015. His identical twin brother Mark Kelly is also an astronaut, having retired to be with his wife (and Arizona congresswoman) Gabrielle Giffords after she survived an assassination attempt in 2011. Both brothers are now finding themselves at the center of a unique NASA study.
The Kelly brothers are part of a proposal to examine the potential impact of microgravity on human genetics. Before he retired, Mark had accumulated a total of 54 days in orbit across four shuttle flights. Scott, on the other hand, has so far spent 180 days in space and will now add another 365 in NASA’s first year-long placement of a US astronaut aboard the ISS.
Chief scientist with NASA’s Johnson Space Center John Charles spoke with Discovery News at length about the developing project, including its origins. Scott Kelly had asked Charles how he should answer the media if the question of his twin arose and Charles called it a “non-issue.” However, Charles’ colleagues disagreed and the idea of studying the two brothers—one in space, one on Earth—began to take shape.
Charles admitted that the goal of the study is still undefined, calling the research observational in nature. The Kellys, who will turn 50 next year, will provide samples of blood and saliva while also participating in psychological and endurance tests before, during, and after Scott’s mission.
“The way we wrote the proposal is essentially anything that researchers think is relevant to understanding the genomics and proteomics and metabolomics and other ‘omics’ that can be deduced from a study of one astronaut in flight and one astronaut who is retired and not flying and living the good life in Albuquerque,” Charles told Discovery News.
According to USA Today, the study will be secondary to already planned US-Russia joint experiments. Scott Kelly is to be accompanied by another 12-month guest, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, when he launches in 2015. Kornienko will be the fifth Russian cosmonaut to have spent a year or more in space. NASA has partnered with 15 other international interests in an attempt to understand the effects of weightlessness on the body; the Kelly project will add to this.
NASA’s Human Research Program is currently accepting proposals for additional tests and studies that could be applied to the twins’ experiment, titled “Differential Effects on Homozygous Twin Astronauts Associated with Differences in Exposure to Spaceflight Factors.” Proposals are due no later than September 17, 2013.
“We are prepared for any kind of suggestions that the scientific community present that do pass peer-review and do promise to illuminate the differences in homozygous twins in response to spaceflight,” said Charles.