A Northwestern-led team is studying how space affects microbiota in the human gastrointestinal tract as part of an unprecedented astronaut twins study involving Scott Kelly (left) and Mark Kelly. Scott launched into space March 27, 2015, to begin his mission on the International Space Station, while Mark remained on Earth. (Photo: NASA)

Northwestern hosted a viewing party March 1 to welcome astronaut Scott Kelly back to Earth, where he and his twin brother will make science history.

The viewing party -- cleverly themed by the host scientists around space food like Moon Pies and Tang -- was held in Pancoe Auditorium on the Evanston campus.

The gathering celebrated Scott Kelly's return after almost a year in space and the start of a unique scientific journey for Northwestern professors Fred Turek and Martha Vitaterna, who are conducting research on Scott and his identical twin, Mark.

Mark, a former NASA astronaut, and Scott are participating in parallel studies to help scientists compare the effects of space on the body and mind.

“This is an entirely new type of NASA study, integrating multiple data types to gain unprecedented insights into how spaceflight impacts human health and biology,” said Turek, a professor of biology and director of Northwestern’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology.


Scott Kelly launched to the space station March 27, 2015, from Kazakhstan. He landed in Kazakhstan March 1 along with cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Kelly now holds the record among U.S. astronauts for cumulative time in space, with a total of 520 days, as well as the record for the longest single mission of any American astronaut.

During the record-setting mission, Kelly participated in a number of studies to provide new insights into how the human body adjusts to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and the stress of long-duration spaceflight, which will inform plans for the a future journey to Mars.

The Northwestern-led research team is one of 10 NASA-funded groups across the country studying the Kelly twins to learn how living in space for a long period of time -- such as a mission to Mars -- affects the human body.

Turek and Martha Vitaterna of Northwestern, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Rush University Medical School, will explore how the space environment affects the microbiota “ecosystem” in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

“When humans travel to space, they don't go alone,” said Vitaterna, research associate professor and deputy director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology. “Each one brings along trillions of microscopic ‘friends’ -- beneficial bacteria that inhabit our bodies. When we welcome Scott back to Earth, we will also welcome back his microbiota. We're interested in how the microbiota may have changed as Scott adapted to spaceflight.”

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