A SpaceX Flight That Only Lasted for Three Days Brought Its Astronauts Back Genetically Younger

  • The 2021 Inspiration4 mission was SpaceX’s first fully private commercial flight.

  • The telomeres, which are chromosome structures that shorten with age, of the four crew members actually lengthened.

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In September 2021, SpaceX launched the first fully private space mission, Inspiration4, into orbit. It lasted just 71 hours, but it was enough for its four crew members to return genetically younger.

Four skin and blood samples. The Inspiration4 flight wasn’t for scientific purposes. It was a commercial flight to Earth orbit in the Crew Dragon spacecraft funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman for charity.

However, the crew members, including Isaacman himself, participated in scientific research after Hayley Arceneaux, the medical officer aboard the spacecraft, collected skin and blood samples from crew members and herself. Following their return to Earth, extensive testing of the samples continue to produce unexpected results today.

A rapid and profound effect. A recent analysis of the genetic changes in the four space tourists has revealed that their telomeres, the structures that protect the ends of human chromosomes and shorten with age, lengthened significantly in space.

The results of the experiment, published in this week in Nature Communications, suggest that the space environment has a rapid and profound effect on the human body. Within a few hours in orbit, the four Inspiration4 crew members experienced significant changes in their blood's biomarkers.

There’s always a “but.” Upon their return to Earth, the astronauts' telomeres immediately shrunk. In fact, they became even shorter than they were before the flight. They also suffered bone and muscle loss, as well as increased brain stress, which took six months to return to pre-flight levels (slightly less in the case of the two women on the mission, Arceneaux and geologist Sian Proctor).

In a press conference on Monday, Susan Bailey, the leader of the study, said that the researchers don’t fully understand what triggers these rapid changes, although they hope to learn more to be able to control the response in the future. In Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar, the relativistic speed of the flight ensured that the protagonists didn't age. That doesn't apply to reality, though, and the results of this three-day flight remain a mystery.

The case of Scott Kelly. One of the most famous studies on the physiological changes an astronaut undergoes in space is that of NASA's Scott Kelly, who spent a year on the International Space Station in 2015. Upon his return, the evolution of his body was compared to his twin brother Mark Kelly, who had remained on Earth.

Telomeres, which tend to shorten with time and stress, lengthened in Scott Kelly’s case as well. What the new study shows is that just a few days of exposure to space are enough to produce bodily changes in the proteins and gene expression of astronauts.

Image | Hayley Arceneaux (Inspiration4)

Related | Starship Has 9 Months to Complete NASA’s Lunar Contract. Against All Odds, SpaceX Believes It’s Doable

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