Tag Archives: weightlessness

More Junk Science and Journalism

I can’t stand it. I just can’t stand it. It keeps happening and I just can’t stand it.

Yesterday there was this absurd short news piece posted on the website of the so-called journal Science, “Apollo astronauts much more likely to die from heart disease”. describing a research paper published by one of Nature’s side journals, Scientific Reports. Before I even looked at the story I said to myself, “How can they possibly come to that conclusion considering the tiny number of humans who have ever traveled beyond Earth orbit? The sample will simply be too small to allow for any such finding.”

Then I looked at the article and found my instincts confirmed. As Steve Milloy noted on his very aptly named website, Junk Science,

Yes, the result is based on a total of three (3) cases of heart disease deaths of out seven (7) Apollo astronauts. Past the vanishingly small sample size and even smaller number of cases, heart disease is a natural disease of aging and the Apollo lunar astronauts were 10 years older than the other comparison groups.

To put it more bluntly, this was a garbage piece of very bad science. While it was somewhat embarrassing for a Nature journal to publish it, it was far more disgraceful for the journal Science to highlight it. I, however, don’t have to join these two peer-review journals and participate in their stupidity, and thus I made no mention of the story on Behind the Black, because it is my policy to not waste much time on bad science, unless I think that bad science is going to have bad repercussions.

Well the bad repercussions have arrived. Since yesterday, the following so-called news organizations have run with this story, without the slightest indication that they have faintest understanding of science, statistics, or plain common sense:
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July 12, 2016 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

Embedded below the fold. I spent a large portion of the podcast talking about the medical problems caused by long-term weightlessness, and how it might limit our ability to send humans to other planets. We also touched on the possible consequences to space policy should Donald Trump pick Newt Gingrich as his VP.
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Vision problems from weightlessness

This article provides an excellent review of the vision problems caused by long term exposure to weightlessness, including the efforts to study the problem on Earth.

Bottom line:

Before a human trip to Mars — a journey of six-to-nine months that NASA says it wants to achieve by the 2030s — researchers agree that VIIP [the name given to this problem] must be understood much better. VIIP could be the first sign of greater dangers to the human body from microgravity. “We’re seeing the visual and neural, ophthalmic manifestations of it,” Barratt said. “I’m fairly certain this is a bit more global than that.”

Richard Williams, the chief health and medical officer at NASA, agrees that what we do not know about VIIP still poses the biggest threat. Ironically, one of the only ways to get more knowledge is spend more time in microgravity. “The longer we stay in space, the more we’re going to learn,” Williams said.

Kelly describes medical issues from weightlessness

In prepared remarks to a congressional subcommittee today, astronaut Scott Kelly described the medical problems he has experienced since returning from his 340 day mission on ISS.

Kelly claimed in these remarks that weightlessness caused permanent effects (which this news article decides to emphasize), but I think that might be an overstatement. None of the specific problems he experienced appear to be permanent ones, and in my interviews with Russian astronauts who stayed even longer on Mir they noted no permanent effects. One did say however that the recovery time tended to match the mission time, so that if you spent a year in space it took a year to completely recover. Kelly has only been back about three months, so his recovery is certainly not over yet.

Update: Kelly’s remarks were part of a hearing promoting legislation that would give astronauts lifetime medical coverage from the government. Thus, there is a bit of lobbying going on here.

Liver damage from weightlessness?

The uncertainty of science: Mice flown for almost two weeks on the last space shuttle mission in 2011 have shown evidence of the early symptoms of liver disease.

The mice spent time orbiting the Earth on the final space shuttle flight in 2011. Once they returned home, teams of scientists were allowed to share and study their internal organs.

Jonscher’s team found that spaceflight resulted in increased fat storage in the liver, comparing pair-fed mice on Earth to those on the shuttle. This was accompanied by a loss of retinol, an animal form of Vitamin A, and changes to levels of genes responsible for breaking down fats. As a result, mice showed signs of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and potential early indicators for the beginnings of fibrosis, which can be one of the more progressive consequences of NAFLD. “It generally takes a long time, months to years, to induce fibrosis in mice, even when eating an unhealthy diet,” Jonscher said. “If a mouse is showing nascent signs of fibrosis without a change in diet after 13 ½ days, what is happening to the humans?”

This result doesn’t prove that weightlessness causes liver damage. It only suggests that more research is needed, though the data from six month to year long missions suggest that the liver harm to humans is either non-existent or temporary.

Injected stem cells cure osteoporosis in mice

Scientists have discovered that an injection of stem cells into mice with osteoporosis was able to completely cure them of the bone disease.

Researchers at the University of Toronto and The Ottawa Hospital had previously found a causal effect between mice developing age-related osteoporosis and a deficiency in mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). One of the promising attributes of MSCs is that, while they can grow into different cells in the body just like other stem cells, they can be transplanted without the need for a match. “We reasoned that if defective MSCs are responsible for osteoporosis, transplantation of healthy MSCs should be able to prevent or treat osteoporosis,” says William Stanford, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and Professor at the University of Ottawa.

To put this reasoning to the test, the scientists injected MSCs into mice with the condition. Six months later, which is one quarter of the life span of the animal, they observed a healthy functional bone in place of the damaged one. “We had hoped for a general increase in bone health,” says John E. Davies, co-author of the study. “But the huge surprise was to find that the exquisite inner ‘coral-like’ architecture of the bone structure of the injected animals – which is severely compromised in osteoporosis – was restored to normal.”

The importance of this discovery for space travel is that it might eventually allow scientists to use it to somehow prevent the loss of bone density during weightlessness.

The first music video in zero gravity

Update: The music video itself has been pulled from youtube for copyright reasons that I don’t quite understand. However, the making of video is still available, and that will give you a pretty good feel for some of the stuff in the original piece.

I was going to make this an evening pause, but then decided it shouldn’t wait. This music video, by OK-Go, is unique and somewhat historic, as it I think is the first to have been done in zero gravity, using an airplane to fly parabolic arcs. It demonstrates clearly the fantastic and as present almost unimaginable possibilities of dance in weightlessness, as it also might be the first time that professional dancers, the two women, are given a chance to do moves in microgravity.

Be sure to also watch the making of video below the fold. And go here for the story behind the video.

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Using fish to study bone loss in weightlessness

A Japanese experiment on ISS, comparing the development of fish in weightlessness with those on the ground, has provided` scientists more information about bone density loss in weightlessness.

Akira Kudo at Tokyo Institute of Technology, together with scientists across Japan, have shown that medaka fish reared on the International Space Station for 56 days experienced increased osteoclast activity – bone cells involved in the re-absorption of bone tissue – likely leading to a subsequent reduction of bone density. They also found several genes that were upregulated in the fish during the space mission. The team generated fish with osteoclasts that emit a fluorescent signal. They sent 24 fish into space as juveniles, and monitored their development for 56 days under microgravity. The results were compared with a fish control group kept on Earth.

Kudo and his team found that bone mineral density in the pharyngeal bone (the jaw bone at the back of the throat) and the teeth of the fish reduced significantly, with decreased calcification by day 56 compared with the control group. This thinning of bone was accompanied by an increase in the volume and activity of osteoclasts. The team conducted whole transcriptome analysis of the fish jaws, and uncovered two strongly upregulated genes (fkbp5 and ddit4), together with 15 other mitochondria-related genes whose expression was also enhanced. Reduced movement under microgravity also has an influence. The fish began to exhibit unusual behavior towards the latter stages of their stay in space, showing motionless at day 47.

What the data mostly confirms is that long-term weightlessness is a bad thing for the development of bones, and not just in humans. Whether scientists can use these results to counter these harmful effects is not clear, however.

Growing and eating lettuce on ISS

Astronauts are about to eat a crop of romaine lettuce that they have grown entirely from seed on ISS.

The story is important as it indicates that the engineering to grow plants in space is continuing to improve. The article however is very wrong when it says that this will be the first salad grown and eaten in space. Russian astronauts have been working on this problem on their space stations since the 1970s, and in at least one case — which was captured on video almost a decade ago — have eaten space-grown lettuce. (I wrote about this event for Air & Space back in 2003.)

3D printed items made in space come back to Earth

NASA today released a video of engineers unpacking a box of 3D parts that had been printed on ISS and then returned to Earth for testing.

Some more details here.

The goal, Bean continued, is for NASA to develop a database of mechanical properties to see if there’s any difference in mechanical strength between identical items made in space and on Earth. During the interview last month, Bean said that while NASA didn’t yet have any hard data, there had been initial indications from videos made on the space station, that the plastics used in the 3D printing there had “adhered differently” than those in the terrestrial test. “The astronauts trying to get the parts off the plate,” Bean said, found that the plastic “seemed to be a little more stuck than on the ground.” He said that while it was too early to tell if that was actually true, his guess was that if so, “it may be due to a lack of convection in zero-gravity.”

Understanding the engineering issues of 3D printing in space will make it possible for crews to carry far less cargo on long interplanetary journeys. Instead, they would carry a much smaller amount of raw material, which they could use to manufacture items as needed, then recycled.

How scientists are using the Kelly twins during Scott Kelly’s year-long mission to ISS to learn how weightlessness effects the human body

Link here. Scott Kelly launches today to the station to begin the flight.

The article’s headline and initial focus on how the Kellys’ privacy rights might interfere with the research seems inappropriate. It is as if the author and Nature wanted to spin the story to force the Kellys to reveal private medical data they would prefer to keep private.

The real story the article tells is that an incredible wealth of knowledge about microgravity will be gained by this flight, because the Kellys are both participating. And depending on what is learned when their entire genomes are sequenced, we might also be able to study that fully as well.

A bacteria that causes urinary tract infections has been found to grow better in zero gravity than it does on Earth.

Shades of science fiction: A bacteria that causes urinary tract infections has been found to grow better in zero gravity than it does on Earth.

It was inevitable that such a bug would be found. The key here is to figure out how to keep it from getting up into space.

Data from an experiment on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has confirmed that light plastics can provide sufficient protection for humans against radiation.

Data from an experiment on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has confirmed that light plastics can provide sufficient protection for humans against radiation.

This is very good news indeed. Combined with the data from Curiosity, which indicated that the radiation levels in interplanetary space were less intense that expected, it appears that radiation will not be a serious obstacle to interplanetary travel.

Now we just have to get the bone loss and vision problems solved.

The Russians are once again pushing for a one year long mission on ISS, while NASA once again appears unenthusiastic.

The Russians are once again pushing for a year long mission on ISS, while NASA once again appears unenthusiastic.

Though from this article it appears that this time NASA officials are at least considering the idea.

NASA today announced that recent research on ISS into bone loss due to weightlessness has found that proper exercise and diet can stabilize bone loss.

Good news! NASA today announced that recent research on ISS into bone loss due to weightlessness has found that proper exercise and diet can stabilize bone loss.

Past Russian research on Mir had found that exercise and diet could limit the bone loss, but not stop it entirely. The key difference in this recent work seems to be the use of more sophisticated exercise equipment.

If this research holds up, it eliminates one of the most serious obstacles to interplanetary travel.

New research suggests that — despite its known bad effects — weightlessness might actually slow the aging process.

New research suggests that — despite its known bad effects — weightlessness might actually slow the aging process.

Don’t jump into that spaceship yet! The research was done on worms, and is to put it mildly very preliminary. Moreover, none of the results change anything regarding the serious loss of bone density and the weakening of the muscles and cardiovascular system caused by weightlessness.

Research on ISS has found that prolonged spaceflight causes vision problems and might even damage the human eye.

Research on ISS has found that prolonged spaceflight causes vision problems and might even damage the human eye.

There had been hints of this discovery in an earlier report, but today’s paper is the first published science on the subject.

The results are not only important for finding out the medical challenges of weightlessness. They illustrate once again the need to do long extended flights on ISS. Without that research we are never going to be able to fly humans to other planets.

Over-the-counter osteoporosis drug appears to keep astronauts from losing bone density on long space flights

Big news: New research on ISS now shows that the standard over-the-counter osteoporosis drugs used by millions on Earth appears to keep astronauts from losing bone density during long space flights.

Beginning in 2009, the group administered the drug to five long-stay astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), including Koichi Wakata, 48, and Soichi Noguchi, 46. The five took the drug — an over-the-counter bisphosphonate used to treat osteoporosis — once a week starting three weeks before they lifted off until they returned to Earth. The researchers then monitored the astronauts’ bone mass over time and compared the results to those for 14 astronauts that had never taken the drug.

The results showed that the 14 who had never taken the drug had average bone density loss of 7 percent in the femur, and 5 percent in the hip bone. The five astronauts on bisphosphonate, however, only had average bone density loss in the femur of 1 percent, and even a 3 percent increase in the hip bone. Calcium levels in their urine, which rise the more bone mass is lost, were also very low.

If these results hold up, they might very well solve one of the biggest challenges faced by any interplanetary traveler. Up until now, bone loss during long weightless missions never seemed to average less than 0.5 percent per month. After spending three years going to and from Mars, an astronaut could thus lose about almost 20 percent of their bone mass in their weight-bearing bones, and would probably be unable to return to Earth.

Thus, a mission to Mars seemed impossible, unless we could build a ship with some form of artificial gravity, an engineering challenge we don’t yet have the capability to achieve.

If these already tested drugs can eliminate this problem, then the solar system is finally open to us all. All that has to happen now is to do some one to two year manned missions on ISS to test the drugs effectiveness for these long periods of weightlessness.

A new study has been released detailing the vision problems experienced by astronauts on space flights longer than six months

A new study has been released detailing the vision problems experienced by astronauts on space flights longer than six months. Hat tip to Clark Lindsey.

The visual system changes discovered by the researchers may represent a set of adaptations to microgravity. The degree and type of response appear to vary among astronauts. Researchers hope to discover whether some astronauts are less affected by microgravity and therefore better-suited for extended space flight, such as a three-year round trip to Mars.

In their report, Drs. Mader and Lee also noted a recent NASA survey of 300 astronauts that found that correctible problems with both near and distance vision were reported by about 23 percent of astronauts on brief missions and by 48 percent of those on extended missions. The survey confirmed that for some astronauts, these vision changes continue for months or years after return to Earth.

Blurred vision a risk for astronauts who spend months in space

Blurred vision is now considered a serious risk for astronauts who spend months in space.

According to one NASA survey of about 300 astronauts, nearly 30 percent of those who have flown on space shuttle missions – which usually lasted two weeks — and 60 percent who’ve completed six-month shifts aboard the station reported a gradual blurring of eyesight.

This story is a followup on information contained in an earlier National Academies report on astronaut staffing.

The dangerous environment of space

A just released report from the National Academies, Preparing for the High Frontier: the role and training of NASA astronauts in the post-space shuttle era, describes the challenges that NASA faces in staffing its astronaut corps in the coming years. More important, however, is some new information buried in the report about the hazards of long term exposure to weightlessness.

For example, it seems a significant number of astronauts have come back from spending months at ISS with serious vision problems, caused by a newly discovered condition dubbed papilledema, the swelling of the optic disk.
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