Spaceflight Insider

NASA seeking to unlock secrets of longevity

International Space Station ISS in orbit above Earth NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The International Space Station in orbit above Earth. Photo Credit: NASA

World War II veteran Dorothy Turner Johnson, a resident of Disney’s Celebration, Florida, community celebrated her 100th birthday several months ago. Does Dorothy have some “secret” to a long and remarkably active life? Scientists now believe that it’s related to something called telomeres, the “caps” on the ends of chromosomes (similar to the tips of shoelaces) that protect them from fraying and shortening. NASA has launched an experiment to better understand how telomeres behave and how to strengthen them, not only for astronauts but also for Earthbound humans as well.

NASA’s immediate interest in telomeres relates to the health and stamina of astronauts during long-duration stays in space, such as travel to an asteroid or to Mars.

Telomeres shorten over time, and the rate at which this occurs can be increased by stress, leading to accelerated aging, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and an impaired immune system.

No, NASA has not decided to send Dorothy’s DNA up the Space Station (though perhaps they might want to consider it). Instead, astronauts are collecting 10 ml samples (about two teaspoons) of their own blood: 2-3 times pre-flight, 1-2 times in-flight, and 3-4 times post-flight.

Image of Telomeres from the Whole Health Insider posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Infographic detailing telomeres. Image Credit: WholeHealthCredit

The pre- and post-flight samples, collected here on Earth, are processed immediately and assays performed. The in-flight samples, collected on the International Space Station (ISS ), are returned to Earth on returning Soyuz spacecraft for analysis which, in turn, will be returned to Colorado State University (CSU ).

The principal investigator for this project is Susan Bailey, Ph.D., at CSU, Fort Collins, CO. The experiment is already underway as part of the so-called “Twins Study”. Blood samples are being collected and analyzed from Scott Kelly, on his one-year stay on the ISS, and from his Earth-bound twin Mark Kelly.

In addition, Dr. Bailey also has a non-Twins ISS experiment on telomeres that is currently in progress. These results will be collected from astronauts during their usual six-month missions aboard the ISS, and it will help to interpret the results from the Twins study.

SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket with NASA CRS 7 Dragon launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida photo credit Carleton Bailie SpaceFlight Insider

The CRS 7 mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

While scientists currently believe that regular exercise and a Mediterranean-type diet containing antioxidants and other foods can strengthen telomeres, Ms. Bailey and her team are hoping to greatly enhance their knowledge of this enzyme and what specific factors can retard the shortening process; specifically, how life stresses can influence telomere maintenance, which in turn is related to aging and age-related diseases.

Establishing relationships between stress and shortened telomeres, including altered telomerase activity, could lead to potential countermeasures for reduced immune function, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

The International Space Station is considered to be a good setting for this type of study because not only are there potential stress factors (e.g., high workload, poor sleep, demanding operational pace), but also it is possible to accurately keep track of the stressors and better assess which ones are the most damaging. According to NASA, blood collection tubes had been slated to be aboard the ill-fated June 28 SpaceX CRS-7 mission, but they were apparently pulled from the manifest before the flight.

Sufficient supplies related to the telomeres study are already on the ISS; the CRS-7 mishap is expected to have no impact of this experiment.



Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.

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