Space Science: Why Mice, Beer and Sperm Are Sent into Orbit 

By | June 30, 2021

APRIL 12, 1961 YURI GAGARIN became the first person in history to fly into space. After a few decades, the incredible became almost commonplace – the world started talking about space tourism. True, it did not start very smoothly: in 1986, the first space tourist was supposed to be the American teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died 73 seconds after the launch of the Challenger shuttle, and the United States passed a law prohibiting non-professionals from flying into space. But the world was changing, and ways were improving to ensure the safety of passengers.

The ISS has already been visited by businessman Dennis Tito, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth, Sensors Unlimited founder Gregory Olsen, Prodea Systems co-founder Anushe Ansari, who became the first woman among space tourists, head of Intentional Software Corporation Charles Simonyi (and twice), computer game developer Richard Garriott and Cirque du Soleil director Guy Laliberté. And Elon Musk’s launch of a Tesla car with a dummy on board is impressive – especially considering the ironic reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels in the form of a message “Don’t Panic” on the multimedia system.

All this, however, does not mean that humanity has subjugated the cosmos. We still have a lot of tasks ahead of us, for example, plans to colonize Mars. And now scientists do not miss the opportunity to use space for their own purposes. The International Space Station is an in-orbit laboratory where unique experiments can be carried out. This could potentially be useful for both astronauts and future inhabitants of Mars, the flight to which, as it turned out , is twice as dangerous as everyone thought. But so far this allows at least to obtain data for scientific, including medical, discoveries.

Twin astronauts and genome alteration

Scott and Mark Kelly are the only absolutely identical astronauts in the world (they are identical twins). At least that was until Scott spent almost a year in zero gravity. Usually astronauts “live” on the ISS for no more than six months, but Scott Kelly was deliberately sent to the station for a longer period – so that the changes in his body were more noticeable. After returning, the researchers compared his performance with his brother: it turned out that Scott’s height increased by almost five centimeters. In addition, his body weight has decreased, the microbiome (a set of microorganisms) of the intestine has almost completely changed, and the genome, according to preliminary analysis, has undergone some changes.

All this allowed NASA experts to declare that the space environment activated a group of “space” genes in Scott Kelly’s body, which affected immunity, bone tissue, vision, hearing and some other indicators. Despite the fact that most of the changes (for example, growth) returned to their starting point after some time , about 7% of the genes were fixed in the new state. Scientists believe that the reason for what is happening should be sought in “cosmic stress” – the impact on the body of an atypical environment, which the body perceives as a threat, responding to it accordingly.

In previous studies, by the way, it was noted that space flights have a special effect on the brain, making it more neuroplastic . According to an experiment conducted at the University of Michigan, the amount of gray matter in some areas of the cosmonauts decreased, while in others, more needed at the moment – for example, in the areas responsible for the movement of the lower extremities – increased.

At the same time, a team of scientists from the University of Florida found that when traveling to the moon, astronauts have an increased risk of heart problems: based on data received from participants in the Apollo program from 1961 to 1972 , they found that space radiation causes about five times more harm to the heart and blood vessels of “lunar” astronauts in comparison with astronauts who have never flown to the moon.

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