You Know What's Better Than a Twin Study? A Twin Study Conducted in Space

NASA's latest version of Project Gemini involves actual twins.
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Soon, one of these guys will be in space. (AP)

Growing up, twin brothers Mark and Scott Kelly shared a lot -- even for twins. They took the same AP Biology class. They were co-captains of their high school swim team. They worked some of the same jobs. Even into adulthood, the brothers shared things. They both became captains in the U.S. Navy. They joined the same class at the Test Pilot School. And in 1996, they joined another class together: the 1996 class of the U.S Astronaut Corps.

Yep: Mark and Scott Kelly are brothers who are also twins who are also astronauts. They are the only twins to have been up in space together. The fact that their story hasn't yet been made into a Lifetime Original Movie is an affront to us all. 

And the pair recently thought (possibly at the same time, because twins) that they should really put their twindom to use. So the twins, as twins are wont to do, schemed. And they realized that they were in a unique position to use their twindom to benefit science and humanity and space travel, all at the same time. In late 2012, NASA announced that it had selected Scott Kelly to conduct a yearlong mission, beginning in March 2015, on the International Space Station. Which would mean that Scott would be up in space for a year while Mark -- whom you might also know as the husband of Gabrielle Giffords -- would remain on Earth. 

Which would present the perfect opportunity for, yes, the mother of all twin studies: one that would place two genetically identical humans in two environmentally disparate environments. One twin on Earth ... the other twin in space.

The brothers presented their idea to NASA, and NASA accepted it. So 2015, as a result, will see the ultimate in twin studies: one that takes place, at least 50 percent of the way, in low-Earth orbit. "Project Gemini" made awesomely literal.

Gimmicky? Sure. But the overall hope is that a twin study like this will help scientists to develop ways to counteract the negative health effects that could be posed by the long-term missions that may be the future of space travel. As it's currently conceived, the project will involve what most studies do: measuring the biological states of both twins as they go about their lives in their different environments. Scott Kelly, from up in space, will undergo blood sampling at regular intervals. So will Mark, who is technically retired from NASA and who will, on Earth, "otherwise maintain a normal lifestyle."

And you, should you choose, can be part of the Kellys' project. NASA has issued a call for proposals for particular scientific experiments that the study (official title: "Differential Effects on Homozygous Twin Astronauts Associated with Differences in Exposure to Spaceflight Factors") might entail. And while the ideal experiments won't be too taxing on Scott Kelly, who has a slate of more standard scientific experiments he'll be conducting during his time on the ISS, NASA, it says, is open to suggestions for what those experiments could be. Your deadline is September 17 to tell the space agency if you have an idea. Or two.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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