When astronaut Scott Kelly was preparing to head to space for a year-long mission on the International Space Station in 2015, he immediately thought about his brother.
“This was going to be unique for NASA,” Scott Kelly says in an interview from Space Center Houston. “The first U.S. crew member spending a year in space… maybe there was some value in taking advantage of the fact that…I had an identical twin brother.”
His identical twin happens to be former astronaut Mark Kelly, who would be on earth during the same period of time. Scott saw potential to learn something.
“I think as an astronaut we have an obligation to promote science, perform the science, to be engaged in science,” he says.
The journal publication Science was very interested in the idea.
All they needed now was a team of researchers for what would be known as the “Twins Study.”
Susan Bailey is a self-described “space nerd.” But she’s also a professor and biologist at Colorado State University. When she saw the request for researchers, she jumped at it. Her team was selected as one of 10 investigations selected for the study that had one simple goal: to study the effects of spaceflight on the twins, Bailey says.
Scott Kelly soon became the guinea pig.
“[I had to conduct] a lot of medical tests, a lot of MRI’s, cat scans, cognitive tests, blood draws, ultrasounds,” he recalls.
He even had dots tattooed to his skin, so he knew exactly where those ultrasounds needed to be done.
The results are now out, and there’s one big headline.
“My telomeres got better in space,” Kelly says.
Telomeres are the caps at the end of a strand of DNA that protect chromosomes, and those telomeres shorten as we get older.
It shocked researchers, but Kelly’s telomeres got longer.
“People will say, ‘Well is it the fountain of youth? What if we all go to space, you know?’” Bailey says smiling.
But sadly, it’s not that simple. The minute Kelly returned to earth, those telomeres shortened rapidly and returned back to their normal length.
But exactly what it means remains sort of a mystery—at least for now.
“You know, I don’t think we’re going to send people to space and they’ll live forever as a result of this,” Kelly says. “But there might be some ancillary benefit.”
Bailey says it could open the door to a potential host of new studies on aging. But for now, she’s just glad she could play a role in a breakthrough study.
“It's like serving your country, serving the astronauts,” Bailey says. “[We’re] trying to do our part to really push space exploration forward.”
According to Bailey, life doesn't get much better than that.