Summary: Prof Christopher E Mason has been studying astronaut Scott Kelly’s reactions to life in space and reveals how we might adapt to overcome the challenges we face
Original author and publication date: Ian Taylor – July 7, 2021
Futurizonte Editor’s Note: If can edit the DNA of astronauts, we can edit anybody’s DNA too.
From the article:
Per aspera ad astra’. This is the phrase adopted as a statement of intent by space agencies, both real and fictional, that originates in Virgil’s Aeneid. But exactly what kinds of hardship will the human body have to endure to colonise the cosmos?
When Scott Kelly came back to Earth after 340 days in space, it felt like his skin was on fire. Not on re-entry, but later, when he tried to sit down, get dressed or move. Spending close to a year in microgravity will do that to you; aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Kelly’s skin got used to feeling no weight and having nothing touching it.
Like other astronauts, he floated around the ISS with little need for furniture. He didn’t wear shoes and even his clothes drifted around his body instead of hanging from it. So when he came home, a shirt sleeve bearing down on his arm under the pull of Earth’s gravity was alien, painful even. As Kelly himself said in a post-flight press conference: “Adjusting to space is easier than adjusting to Earth…”
Since the year-long mission ended in 2016, Kelly has become a guinea pig for scientists studying what happens to the human body when it ventures beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Even among astronauts he’s a rare case. Not only did he spend the best part of a year in orbit, but Kelly has an identical twin brother, Mark. It gave NASA an unprecedented opportunity to study the physiological, molecular and cognitive effects of long-term spaceflight.
Scott went to space. Mark, the perfect control subject, stayed on Earth. The brothers are both retired astronauts now, but their contributions to the landmark Twins Study continue and have produced a wealth of information about how space affects the heart, the microbiome, the immune system and more.
Learning about the challenges of spending prolonged periods in microgravity is vital as space agencies and private companies get serious about sending humans back to the Moon and even to Mars. A mission to the Red Planet is potentially a three-year trip, so we need to understand what might happen to anyone trying to make it.
One of the scientists prodding and poking the Kelly brothers is Prof Christopher E Mason, the lead geneticist on the Twins Study. Mason’s lab at Cornell University is nothing if not ambitious. Its work centres on a “500-year plan for the survival of the human species on Earth, in space, and on other planets.”
As well as studying what happens to astronauts, it involves laying the genetic groundwork for humans to live among the stars.
Mason envisions a future in which the human genome can be bioengineered to adapt to almost any environment, augmented with genes from other species that allow us to explore and settle the farthest corners of the Universe.
Mason is serious. His new book, The Next 500 Years, maps out in detail how we’ll do it.