Friday, March 27, 2015

Historic ISS 1-Year Mission Begins Today


Expedition ISS 42S will launch Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko to the International Space Station today from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

When: March 27, 2015, 
12:42 pm PDT 
3:42 pm EDT
20:42 CET

Live coverage is available on and Spaceflight Now, which is already blogging up-to-the-minute pre-launch coverage.

 Photo credit: NASA/ Bill Ingalls

Above: The veteran astronauts that will blast off to the ISS today. Scott Kelly (left) and Mikhail Kornienko (right) will remain on the orbital outpost for a whole year, while Gennady Padalka (middle) will stay on the ISS for the usual 160 days.

Fellow veteran astronaut Mark Kelly - Scott's twin brother - will remain on Earth as a control subject to compare the effects of long-term exposure to space experienced by his twin brother on-orbit. Mikahil Kornienko was chosen for the 1-year mission to match Mark Kelly on a number of variables, such as age, experience, number of missions, and number of hours spent in space. All of this makes scientific sense, especially since the purpose of the ISS 1-year study is to find out more about the health effects of long-term exposure to space, and how humans generally adapt to microgravity, with an eye towards medium- and long-term missions, such as journeys to Mars.

For the record, I absolutely think that one of the astronauts chosen for the 1-year mission should have been a woman. ISS astronauts corps have plenty of women to choose from. I completely understand why choosing one twin on-orbit while the other remains on Earth makes scientific sense, as does a matched control subject for Scott Kelly on the ISS. My question is: Why were women excluded entirely from a 1-year ISS study? What little we know about adaptation to space seems to indicate non-trivial gender differences. What if it turns out women are better suited to long-term missions than men? Why do we not even bother to ask or study that question, now that we have a 1-year mission in the works? Even if you think the current ISS 1-year mission is perfect as planned, why did it not include a woman as a second control subject on-board the ISS? Why not send a mixed-gender trio for one year? The data derived from cross-gender comparisons would be so much more valuable than comparing men only. That's not even mentioning the fact that the current mission to study long-term effects on humans in space excludes half the human race it claims to study. 

To my knowledge, NASA has no plans to conduct a similar 1-year study with women astronauts only (please, please tell me I'm wrong about this!). Plus, with the current ISS lifespan cycle funded for about another 9 years, and many other male astronauts on the manifest for 160-day stays on the ISS, how likely is it that a female-only 1-year study is going to happen?

From where I'm sitting, excluding women astronauts from the ISS 1-year study looks like nothing so much as stacking the deck in favor of choosing male astronauts (all astronauts corps on Earth are male-dominated) for future long-term mission, e.g., to Mars. The reasoning will go something like this: Well, we have limited slots to Mars, and we already know what happens to men during long-term exposure to space, but with women astronauts... you know, we just cannot risk it, because we don't know - and never bothered to find out.

Photo Credit: NASA Aubrey Gemignani 

The Soyuz rocket that will carry Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka to the ISS in less than two hours.

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