To Get Ready For Mars, NASA Studies How The Body Changes In Space

8:35 minutes

A man wearing a headband in a spaceship holds a complicated-looking rectangular machine.
Astronauts who volunteer for CIPHER will wear a specialized shirt like the one seen here on Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques. This shirt measures heart rate and respiration and is worn periodically before, during, and after missions for two days at a time. Credit: NASA

It’s no longer just the realm of science fiction: It’s possible that in our lifetimes, astronauts will go to Mars. NASA is doing a lot of technological preparation for this, but the key to the success of these missions will be the astronauts involved. As Mars space missions will require months or even years on the red planet, the agency wants to better understand how our bodies are affected by time in space.

NASA recently launched the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research, or CIPHER. This is a suite of 14 studies astronauts will undergo on the International Space Station, measuring everything from bone health to brain activity to vision changes.

Joining Ira to talk about CIPHER and the hopes for health data collection is Dr. Cherie Oubre, CIPHER project scientist in NASA’s human research program based in Houston, Texas.

Segment Guests

Cherie Oubre

Cherie Oubre is CIPHER Project Scientist in NASA’s Human Research Program, based in Houston, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You know, it’s no longer just an idea in science fiction. It is possible that in our lifetimes astronauts will go to Mars. NASA is doing a lot of preparation for this, of course.

And besides the fancy new hardware, the agency also wants to better understand how our bodies are affected by time and space. We have heard anecdotally about this from astronauts over the years. Here is astronaut Mark Kelly talking about his experiences returning to Earth after a long period of time on the International Space Station.

MARK KELLY: Well, your body has to readjust. Even from a short duration flight, two days after you get back, you’re incredibly sore. It’s kind of like if you’ve never lifted weights before, and then you went and did a bunch of squats with a lot of weight, you kind of feel like that a couple of days later.

Your neurovestibular system’s a little messed up, especially the first day. People have a habit as they turn corners of running into walls. So you can’t drive a car for a while. So your body has to go through this readjustment phase. And I think to get back to 100%, it’s typically about as much time as you were in space is the recovery time.

IRA FLATOW: Astronaut Mark Kelly on the show back in 2015. NASA recently launched the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research, more easily called CIPHER. This is a suite of studies astronauts will undergo on the International Space Station measuring everything from their bone health to brain function. Joining me to give us the scoop on CIPHER is my guest, Cherie Oubre, CIPHER Project Scientist in NASA’s Human Research Program based in Houston, Texas. Welcome to Science Friday.

CHERIE OUBRE: Well, thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. I wasn’t kidding when I said there was a suite of studies that make up CIPHER. Just how many are we talking about here?

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, so there’s 14 studies, 14 different investigations that are part of CIPHER.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s a pretty long list. Are there any that you particularly are interested in getting data on?

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, so the unique part of CIPHER itself is that it looks across the whole human system. So the studies go from behavioral health to physiology to cardiovascular fitness, vision changes. So it’s a wealth of information. So I don’t know that I could pick just one. But really, the whole of it in looking at the data to understand how those humans respond to space is probably the most exciting part.

IRA FLATOW: Sounds cool. We’ve had astronauts on the show before, like the twins Scott and Mark Kelly, for example, who have told us, anecdotally, how space seems to affect them physically, like their immune systems changed, as did their mental health. Are we going to actually collect formal data about these things?

CHERIE OUBRE: Exactly. That’s the whole goal of CIPHER is really to characterize how that body changes in response to spaceflight and understand where we need to provide some assistance and help for those longer duration missions. So those immune changes, how do those change, and what can we do to help that crew for those missions?

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know that astronauts were already doing a lot of tests on their bodies while up on the Space Station. How much of CIPHER is just building on the normal physicals that astronauts do, and how much is new?

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, that’s a great question. What we’re doing is we’re leveraging all that normal medical data that’s captured during the spaceflight operations and we’re sharing that data as much as possible to minimize what the crew needs to do, but maximize the amount of information we’re getting back and can analyze to have a better understanding.

IRA FLATOW: And those tests just won’t stop when astronauts land back on Earth, right? Talk me through how some tests will continue when they are back home.

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, that’s a really exciting piece. For CIPHER itself, it happens immediately when they come back to Earth. We look at some of the neurovestibular changes and how the crew can function right when they come back to Earth. And then, we follow that progression as they return to Earth, and get back to normal, and kind of get their land legs after coming back from space.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know the project has recently launched. What are the first studies being done?

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, so right now, as part of CIPHER, we’re doing lots of different investigations. This week, in particular, they’re doing some blood draws that will give us some more insight into things like bone remodeling, and immune status, and nutritional status, those types of things. So as we go through, we’re going to continue to gather more and more data.

IRA FLATOW: One of the categories for study is vision– not something that first comes to mind for me when I think about astronauts. How does space change eyesight?

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, so that’s great. Those low gravity conditions kind of shift some of those body fluids more towards the head. And some of this that’s a big area of research on how that shift causes potential changes in vision. So some crew have come back and had some changes in vision. And so what they’re looking at is understanding what changes in the eye, similar to what you already get done when you go to the doctor and have an OCT or imaging of your eye.

IRA FLATOW: Does it revert back to normal once an astronaut is on land?

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, they’re tracking astronauts and looking. Several do. Some have some long term things that they’re following. But they don’t have clear answers yet.

IRA FLATOW: One of the things we always wonder about is some of the things you learn in science. In particular through CIPHER, could it be translated to health problems for us normal folks?

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, that’s great. A lot of what CIPHER does can be translated to the ground. Great example are the bone measures. When crew go in flight, they’re not loading their bones like they do on the ground. So they’ll lose a little bit of that bone mass, which is translated to some of the things you see on the ground, like patients that have bone loss or osteoporosis.

IRA FLATOW: And the data collected in CIPHER will be based on astronauts’ time on the Space Station. But presumably, you’ll want this data to inform possible trips to Mars, right? But what if the conditions are different?

CHERIE OUBRE: Yeah, and the conditions will be different. But there’s going to be things that are consistent across those. There’s isolation and confinement. There’s the microgravity environment itself. And our scientists are taking all that into account as they look at their data and extrapolate to those future missions.

IRA FLATOW: How long of a duration are you hoping to study? Presumably, changes in exercise, for example, will be different after three months versus, say, a year.

CHERIE OUBRE: Exactly, yeah. So CIPHER is fairly unique in that it wants to look at the duration of change. So we’re looking at some short duration subjects, the three to six weeks, and then six month, which is that normal mission that we have, up to a year. So we can create that curve and really understand how the body’s changing.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because a trip to Mars is going to take more than a year, right?

CHERIE OUBRE: Exactly, yeah. So we’re going to have to really understand how the trajectory is and make some assumptions going forward.

IRA FLATOW: It’s almost a cliche at this point that in movies about space at some point, an astronaut has a mental health crisis.


IRA FLATOW: Well, this is no doubt dramatized, right? I’m sure astronaut mental health is a big deal. Is part of CIPHER studying that also?

CHERIE OUBRE: Exactly, yeah. CIPHER really looks to understand different aspects of behavior and functional changes. A great one is some cognitive tests to understand how crew change throughout a flight to be able to do simple tasks on orbit.

IRA FLATOW: And when can we expect to get the first batch of data back from CIPHER?

CHERIE OUBRE: That’s exciting. We’re all waiting to get more and more information. As these tests are happening, we’re getting several pieces of data back during the mission. And the scientists are excitedly taking those and starting to take a look at that.

Hopefully, we’ll have much, much more data coming back fairly soon. I know we have crew that are coming home in the spring. And we’ll try to put that data together, and we’ll get that out to the public as soon as we can.

IRA FLATOW: Exciting. That’s about all the time we have. For now, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

CHERIE OUBRE: Thank you for having me. Very exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Cherie Oubre, CIPHER Project Scientist in NASA’s Human Research Program based in Houston, Texas.

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