NASA’s space program has fascinated generations of Americans and inspired some super Hollywood films. But many don’t realize it’s also teaching us a lot about human health.
For instance, we’re learning a lot about the immune system through studying astronauts. And it turns out, spending an extended amount of time in sterile environments—like the International Space Station—leads to some very dire consequences. I’ll tell you more about that discovery in just a moment.
Of course, some question why we continue to send people into space. Especially since unmanned space missions are a whole lot less expensive and risky, and still provide much more data about the cosmos.
But cultural historians say that having a frontier to explore is integral to the American experience. And when we “closed” the American frontier, with no uncharted lands to the West left to explore, we became restless for somewhere else to go.
So, we started looking toward the skies above…
Space race yields innovations still used today in medicine
I still remember in the early days of the “space race,” it came as a shock when the Russians launched a satellite into orbit around the Earth before the U.S. But soon thereafter, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy said we would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. And the Apollo Space Program accomplished that feat in July 1969.
My father worked on the navigation system for the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), the portion of the Apollo spacecraft that actually touched down on the surface of the moon. So, I followed the space program rather closely.
Shortly thereafter, I was awarded a congressional appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At the time, there was a Life Sciences Program that aimed to send young officers to medical school—and then, potentially, into astronaut training. But as the war in Southeast Asia wound down and defense funding scaled back, that program was cut.
Then, in the late 1970s, I worked on adapting sophisticated new technology from NASA’s Skylab project to be used in clinical laboratories. And today, a lot of that NASA technology is used in medicine, particularly miniaturization—the development of smaller, more portable devices.
And though it’s true that we’ve learned much more and traveled much further during unmanned space flights, the manned space flight program does actually have one major, immediate upside…
As I said above, it’s teaching us some important lessons about our health…
Time in space disrupts immune system
We already knew that spending extended periods of time in space, without the pull of gravity, can lead to muscle and bone loss. But we now know it also disrupts the immune system.
This discovery came from NASA’s Twin Study on Mark and Scott Kelly. Scott is a NASA astronaut who recently spent nearly a year living on the International Space Station, while his identical twin, Mark, remained on Earth.
It turns out, spending time in the sterile space station significantly altered Scott’s immune system. In fact, scientists say his immune system is now going into overdrive.
“It’s as if the body is reacting to this alien environment sort of like you would a mysterious organism being inside you,” said geneticist Christopher Mason of New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College.
This finding doesn’t surprise me much, as I talk a lot about the importance of exposure to bacteria in your environment.
But in space, there’s no natural exposure to bacteria, including healthy probiotic bacteria, which appear all around us on Earth. These healthy bacteria actually “colonize” us—on our skin, respiratory tract, and GI tract. (You might even call it “colon-ization.”)
Studies show that natural exposure to bacteria helps keep our immune system healthy and balanced. It also helps stop inflammation, the No. 1 cause of disease and aging.
Despite this serious side effect, Scott Kelly said he would like to go back into space on a mission to Mars. Well, he’s also running as a democrat for the Senate seat of Martha McSally (who replaced John McCain) in Arizona. So, I say go ahead and take your political campaign to Mars if you want, Scott.
As for me, I’ll stay here on Earth—with all the healthy bacteria. It seems our bodies need it.
“In space, NASA heard astronaut’s immune system scream.” Stat, 2/15/2019. (statnews.com/2019/02/15/scott-kelly-nasa-twins-study-immune-system/)