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A Dozen New NASA Astronauts and DNA Changes Chosen in 2017

Updated on June 22, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty has spent 20+ years researching the brain and alternative and space medicine. She has degrees in psychology, sports, and medicine.

Astronaut chosen in June 2017 to train for two years for Low Earth Orbit and Deep Space Missions.
Astronaut chosen in June 2017 to train for two years for Low Earth Orbit and Deep Space Missions. | Source

Is DNA an Answer to Mars Exploration?

The costs and potential outcomes of America's Mission to Mars have been the center of heated debate for a decade.

One drawback is that the human body cannot survive in sub-Earth gravity and artificial gravity is not yet available.

As a solution, scientists are studying possible changes to human DNA. To this end, researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Wright State University human performance laboratories are conducting long-term studies.

Since the late 1970s, Wright State researchers have been developing methods of repairing severed spinal cords. This research shows that in states of low gravity and in the complete absence of gravity, leg paralysis not a problem. The work has also shown how an exoskeleton can enable leg movement while implanted electrodes become functional.

Related studies look at bone and muscle composition and possible changes that can be made for life in space, making DNA manipulation a possible solution for human survival on other planets and in prolonged low-Earth orbit.

Should we want to go there (Mars), and decide who is best suited to do so, a great deal more work needs to be done not only in jet propulsion but in human genetics.

— Harvard Medical School; March 27, 2014
NASA Expedition 45/46 Commander, Astronaut Scott Kelly (right) along with his brother, former Astronaut Mark Kelly.
NASA Expedition 45/46 Commander, Astronaut Scott Kelly (right) along with his brother, former Astronaut Mark Kelly. | Source

DNA Already Changes in Space

American twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly have experienced several hundred DNA mutations each. What physical consequences that all of these mutations may have in the future for these two men is unknown at this time.

Data was gathered in a controlled study that compared the physical condition of Mark, who remained on Earth for a year, with that of Scott, who worked on the International Space Station for a year. A large number of measures were taken before and after the one-year period for each man for comparison.

The collected data suggest that aging might reverse in space to some extent. This is because strands of genetic material called "telomeres" at the ends of chromosomes lengthen in space, at least in that white blood cells that were specifically examined.

On Earth, telomeres on all chromosomes shorten every time a cell replaces itself and this process is one of the events that causes aging. Notice how telomeres shorten in the image below.

Scientists are examining the possibility of changing human DNA before explorers and colonists go into space, in order to help them tolerate adverse environmental conditions. Slowing the aging process or keeping white blood cells that fight disease "younger" and healthier may become part of that project.

A human cell usually replicates only about 50-70 times. As the cell divides, telomeres on the end of the chromosomes shorten. The "Hayflick Limit" says that telomeres eventually disappear and the cell dies completely.
A human cell usually replicates only about 50-70 times. As the cell divides, telomeres on the end of the chromosomes shorten. The "Hayflick Limit" says that telomeres eventually disappear and the cell dies completely. | Source

Astronaut Scott Kelly's telomeres on the ends of his chromosomes in his white blood cells lengthened while in space. Researchers said it could be attributed to increased exercise and his reduced calorie intake during flight. The telomeres shortened when he returned. Telomeres typically decrease in length as a person ages.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch; February 1, 2017

A Few Possible Genetic Improvements for Astronauts on Mars

DNA Change
Rationale
Reduce blood volume
Solves the dilemma that Mars's gravity is 38% of Earth's. Our bodies would think we have too much blood and our heads would swell.
Match circadian rhythm to Mars environment
Will solve the problem that prolonged time in outer space reduces the ability to sleep.
Make skin less porous
Will reduce dehydration and sensitivity to extreme heat and cold.
Apply nanotechnology to change oxygen obsorption
Will help humans absorb oxygen from low-oxygen atmospheres.
Strengthen bone density
Will counteract gravity-based loss of bone and teeth on Mars.
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission.
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission. | Source

Are the New Astronauts Human?

Thus far, we believe all twelve space travelers to be 100% human, and no DNA changes have been performed on them. Half of them are US military members and the other half are civilians, while seven are men and five are women, making this an interesting mix of test pilots, engineers, and scientists.

The 2013 class of eight astronauts were four men and four women, with four physicians among them. However, they were all scientists.

The 2017 space explorers include two combat veterans, handy since Japan and the USA have a combined space force to monitor the skies beginning in 2018-2019.

Also among the flyers are two physicians, a professor at MIT, a submariner, another expert on submersible vehicles, a SpaceX engineer, a research biologist who is likely to study alien life, and a planetary geologist to examine Mars landscapes. We will likely have our first Mars geography book soon.

Why do so many of the newest class have expertise in marine sciences? -- Exploring space is much like exploring the undersea world on Earth.

The Military Members, Including Combat Veterans

  • USMC Major Jasmin Moghbeli has advanced degrees in aerospace engineering and information technology with certification a Navy test pilot. She is a perfect candidate for flying in near-Earth orbit and into deep space.
  • US Navy Lieutenant Jonny Kim: This doctor is a combat Navy Seal with medals a degree in mathematics. Survival and medical skills are vital in space.
  • US Army Major Francisco Rubio. Dr. Rubio, a surgeon with combat experience, graduated from West Point and certification as a helicopter pilot.
  • US Navy Lt. Commander Matthew Dominick is an electrical and systems engineer, test pilot, and head of a squadron of fighters.
  • US Navy Lieutenant Kayla Barron. A systems and nuclear engineer, this woman was in the first group of females in submarine duty, as a warfare commander.
  • US Air Force Lt. Colonel Raja Chari is an astronautical engineer, engineering scientist, and a supervising Navy test pilot.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Search and rescue missions are good experience for space travel. Sonar Technician 2nd Class Joel Sharp, right, and Ens. Frederick Nelson both stationed aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Jarrett (FFG 33).AntarcticaAntarctica
Search and rescue missions are good experience for space travel. Sonar Technician 2nd Class Joel Sharp, right, and Ens. Frederick Nelson both stationed aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Jarrett (FFG 33).
Search and rescue missions are good experience for space travel. Sonar Technician 2nd Class Joel Sharp, right, and Ens. Frederick Nelson both stationed aboard the guided-missile frigate USS Jarrett (FFG 33). | Source
Antarctica
Antarctica | Source
Antarctica
Antarctica | Source

The Civilian Members

  • Zena Cardman has advanced degrees in biology and marine sciences, working in undersea caves in Antarctic missions and other aerospace-analog expeditions.
  • Bob Hines is an aerospace engineer, test pilot, and research pilot. He is likely to help develop spacecraft and adaptations for the human body.
  • Warren Hoburg: Professor Hoburg has advanced degrees in aeronautics, astronautics, electrical engineering, and computer science. A licensed pilot, he is experienced in search and rescue.
  • Robb Kulin is an Alaskan is from SpaceX company with extensive experience working on glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets as well as on spacecraft design.
  • Loral O’Hara has trained in low gravity space programs and has degrees in aerospace engineering, aeronautics, and astronautics.
  • Jessica Watkins has already worked on the Mars project in rover development with degrees in geological and environmental sciences and geology.

Astronaut Skills Survey

Which qualifications will be most important on Mars?

See results
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Desert wilderness on Earth.West Rim of Endeavour Crater on MarsDesert view photo from Mars Exploration Rover Spirit.
Desert wilderness on Earth.
Desert wilderness on Earth. | Source
West Rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars
West Rim of Endeavour Crater on Mars | Source
Desert view photo from Mars Exploration Rover Spirit.
Desert view photo from Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. | Source

The 2017 White House intends to reactivate the National Space Council.

— Vice President Mike Pence, June 7, 2017

US Vice President Mike Pence is the chairman of the reactivated National Space Council, which gathers the best data in academia and aerospace business through the work of the US military and civilian members.

Aerospace business members include the nearly 100 members of NASA's Commercial Crew partnerships. The State of Ohio is excited by this development, since it supports over 1,200 aerospace businesses and an official Space Business Corridor.

Space industries are growing across America and new classes of astronauts will be added in the future.

Sources

  • Blogger "lenrosen4". 21st Century Tech. What Mars One Needs is Genetically Altered Human Colonists. April 11, 2014. 21stcentech.com/mars-genetically-altered-human-colonists/ Retrieved June 4, 2017.
  • Harvard Medical School. Genes and Galaxies. March 27, 2014. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/genetics/genes-and-galaxies-3-27-14 Retrieved June 6, 2017.
  • NASA Human Research Program. Twins Study. www.nasa.gov/twins-study Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Space travel changes DNA, study finds. Feb. 1, 2017. www.stltoday.com/news/space-travel-changes-dna-study-finds/article_fcd4a828-f963-5dd7-ad27-66830224211a.html Retrieved June 6, 2017.
  • USAF Civil Air Patrol newsletters, July 2017.

© 2017 Patty Inglish

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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 2 months ago from North America

      NASA is always showing us discoveries we've never expected and I am always looking for more announcements. It is compelling to me and I have to know more!

    • JaneanOverman profile image

      Janean Overman 2 months ago from Virginia

      Interesting area to explore. Great read. Well written. Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 3 months ago

      Patty

      Very interesting. At the moment everyone assumes that NASA are going to be the first to get to Mars, but there are a number of nations (and commercial companies) in the race.

      We're not 100% sure how far along China is, but they have been testing a potential propulsion method (E.M. drive) for two years that could dramatically change how we get to other planets.

      I know President Trump has said he wants to 'up' NASA's timetable, but to beat SpaceX or the Chinese they'll have to.

      Having said that, the stuff about DNA and genetic manipulation was interesting, in some ways, science is beginning to look long and hard at it for some illnesses.

      Great stuff.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 4 months ago from North America

      Hey, FitnezzJim!

      Telomeres are strands of repetitive nucleotide sequences that protect the ends of the chromosomes. Every time a cell replicates itself in our bodies, the telomeres shorten until the time that that are so short that the cell can no longer replicate.

      Scott Kelly's white blood cells' telomeres lengthened during the year in space and this tells me that his immune system may have become "younger" and stronger up there, but the effect was lost after he returned to Earth.

      When the elderly float or exercise in water, the stress of gravity is removed partially from the bones and joints, but I don't think they can stay in long enough for telomeres to lengthen and the buoyancy is not as strong as zero-G. It's a good thought, though!

      It reminds me of the scenes in "Cocoon" where the old folks floated in a pool that aliens had changed somehow to make the people younger. A lot of people would pay for that.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 4 months ago from North America

      @Linda Crampton - Thanks for posting a comment. A lot of people in the US still think the space program is dead, but it is not. There is much more to come, but it gets buried in the news.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 4 months ago from North America

      @Dora - Hi Dora! I liked the mix of backgrounds in the eight people of the Class of 2013 better, with at least four doctors who also were professionals in engineering, deep sea studies, and a lot of other useful fields. The Class of 2017 does have more people armed with wilderness experience, though, and that is a plus. So, I like the combination of the two classes.

      If genetic manipulation is going to be used with these two groups, I have not heard about it yet; and I think we're 10 years away from trying it.

      Of note is that someone developed an oxygen pill between years ago to help with breathing/not breathing under water, but it only lasted 15 minutes at the time - better than nothing!

    • FitnezzJim profile image

      FitnezzJim 4 months ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      Interesting. So, what exactly is a telomere?

      If a telomeres length increases with less gravity, and a telomeres length decreases as we age, and given that the effects of buoyancy in water decrease the apparent gravity, could this be a contributing factor as to why physicians sometimes recommend that the elderly exercise in pools?

      And - what a great hope for the future, that some small part of humanity continues to look to the stars and space exploration, not only as a dream, but with the recognition that it takes development of understanding, hard work and solutions to problems to actually achieve that dream.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting and intriguing article, Patty. You've given me lots to think about!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 4 months ago from The Caribbean

      I appreciate the mix of genders and interests of the new team of astronauts. Thanks for introducing them. Hope they're not allowing themselves to be guinea pigs to the detriment of their personal health.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 4 months ago from North America

      Hi Mike - Curiosity, yes. Too much change (actually very little) in human DNA (only 2% difference between humans and bonobos) and we become a different species of human. Too much playing with DNA and everyone gets cancer or dies young. It's a conundrum.

      Ray Bradbury stories tells us that humans gradually change into something else on Mars. Probably not reality, though. Maybe we aren't meant for other planets, eh?

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 4 months ago from North America

      I am eagerly awaiting what the most recent two classes of astronauts will do! Thanks for posting, Nancy.

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      Nancy Hinchliff 4 months ago

      Really interesting and well written post. Thanks, Patti

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 4 months ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Hello Patty - The idea of changing human genetics, to suit an atmosphere does not sit well with me for some reason. On the other hand, I am all for continuing the realm of space. That pursuit seems a better use of resources and the need for the exploration. You have a never ending supply of curiosity.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
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      Patty Inglish 4 months ago from North America

      Hi Nell! I think you may be correct - gravity might lengthen the telomeres, but we'll know more in the next year or so. Exciting, isn't it?

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 months ago from England

      The telomeres lengthen? how amazing! wonder how? I know it says exercise etc, but surely it must be something to do with gravity?

      Fascinating, and something I would never have thought of! good luck to these brave guys, wherever Space takes them!