Commercial astronauts reveal health effects of flights and construct spaceflight atlas.


The Space Omics and Medical Atlas (SOMA) project, an international research endeavor led by investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine and SpaceX, has revealed that short-term space travel triggers numerous molecular and physiological changes similar to those seen in long-term space missions. Most of these changes reverse within months of returning to Earth. However, some changes that persist and vary between crew members could guide future missions and provide new targets for aerospace medicine. The SOMA project has multiplied human spaceflight data by tenfold, examining changes in gene expression, gene regulation, protein production, metabolism, and human body microbes.

An important part of this research was the Inspiration4 mission, which launched in September 2021 with the first all-civilian, four-person crew for a three-day flight to low-Earth orbit. This mission gave researchers an unprecedented opportunity to study the health impacts of space travel on ordinary people, not just highly trained astronauts. The crew members collected biological samples before, during, and after the flight, providing researchers with full access to their data. A comparison of the new data with that from previous flights, particularly the NASA Twins Study, revealed that many of the same changes occur in short-term space travelers.

Some of the significant findings included immune system alterations, such as a spike in anti-inflammatory proteins called cytokines upon reentry to Earth, and changes in gene expression in immune cells most responsive to the stresses of spaceflight. Researchers also found evidence of brain proteins in the blood of space travelers, suggesting some disruption in the blood-brain barrier. However, most changes reversed quickly after the flight, with the crew’s biology returning to its preflight state for more than 95% of the proteins, chromatin states, and genes within six months.

These findings will guide future studies and may help accelerate discoveries on the health impacts of spaceflight and its parallels with aging, chronic diseases, and immune system disorders. The growing number of commercial spaceflights and crews could expand the dataset and increase its power to detect smaller differences. As we enter a new space age with more data and space launches than ever before, this research will be crucial in preparing for longer missions to the moon and Mars.

The research was a collaborative effort involving over 100 investigators from institutions in more than two dozen countries. The data collected has been compiled into an interactive atlas accessible to other researchers, and nearly 3,000 biological samples from the studies will be hosted by Weill Cornell Medicine. This “treasure trove” of data is expected to yield fundamental discoveries about human health and the health impacts of space flight.



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