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Preparing Humans for Longer Spaceflights

Season 1Episode 290May 26, 2023

Three NASA human research experts discuss CIPHER, the first study integrating multiple physiological and psychological measures to assess how extended durations in space change the human body. HWHAP Episode 290.

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 290: Preparing Humans for Longer Spaceflights A volunteer from NASA’s Artemis Extravehicular Activity training group moves an object while in a spacesuit connected to NASA’s Active Response Gravity Offload System.

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 290: Preparing Humans for Longer Spaceflights A volunteer from NASA's Artemis Extravehicular Activity training group moves an object while in a spacesuit connected to NASA's Active Response Gravity Offload System.

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On Episode 290, three NASA human research experts discuss CIPHER, the first study integrating multiple physiological and psychological measures to assess how extended durations in space change the human body. This episode was recorded on April 18, 2023.

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Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 290, “Preparing Humans for Longer Spaceflights.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, and astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. Many may remember the popular one-year mission from 2015, where Scott Kelly of NASA and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos spent just about a year on the International Space Station to understand what happens to the human body in space for that long. Astronauts today typically spend about six months on station. Some NASA astronauts like Christina Koch or Mark Vande Hei have spent closer to a year. We have a good amount of data from crew members on these long-duration flights, and quite a lot from short-duration missions during shuttle, where crew members spent just a few weeks in space. But to travel deeper into space, we need a good understanding of what happens to the human body for missions that surpass a full year. A human mission to Mars, for example, is just going to be shy of two years at a minimum. To better understand this question, NASA’s Human Research Program wants to plan extended missions aboard the International Space Station a bit closer to home. Sounds like a general question, right? What happens to the human body over the course of more than a year in space? But the truth is that this single question has been asked from so many angles; what happens to vision, bones, the brain, even behavior? Many researchers want to know the answer. So an integrated protocol called CIPHER is bringing together a huge number of disciplines to investigate as many interesting aspects to an extended human mission, as well as standard and shorter missions on the International Space Station as possible. Of course, CIPHER is an acronym and stands for the Compliment of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research. We talked about CIPHER for the first time on Episode 186, really as the community was doing the bulk of planning, and it’s about time for an update. Returning to the podcast is Dr. Cherie Oubre, the Chief Project Scientist for CIPHER and Nikki Schwanbeck, the Project Manager for CIPHER. They were part of Episode 186. A new voice you’ll hear is that of Laura Sarmiento, CIPHER Flight Project Manager. Lots of progress has been made since we last talked, and so we’ll start with an overview of CIPHER as a refresh and then get into the latest and greatest. So here we go. Enjoy.


Host: Laura, Nikki, and Cherie, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast. Very exciting. We’re going to be talking about this, this protocol called CIPHER. And this is not the first time we’ve talked about it. This is not the first time we’ve had a couple of you on the podcast to talk about it, but it’s been a bit. In fact, it was, we were talking just ahead of recording this, that this was, we talked about it during COVID, and just, now we’re all together. So this is really nice to have everybody here in the same room. And things have changed. So now’s a really good time for us to, to catch up and see what’s happening and what’s coming up in the near future for CIPHER. Let’s go around and get to know the voices here. Laura, why don’t we start with you? You’re the, you’re the, the new voice of, of the podcast. We’ve had Cherie and Nikki before, but welcome.

Laura Sarmiento: Hi, welcome. Nice to be here. I’m Laura Sarmiento. I am the CIPHER flight project manager, and yeah, it’s great to be here.

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 290: Preparing Humans for Longer Spaceflights Laura Sarmiento

Host: Awesome. Yeah. So what’s the, what’s the CIPHER flight manager, what’s, what’s your role and what’s that responsibility?

Laura Sarmiento: Yeah, so, you know, a little bit of background about me. I got my start at NASA as a high school aerospace scholar, where I worked with other like-minded students to plan a mission to Mars. This experience solidified my drive to, to work at NASA, and — and why I pursued my education in science. I did five different tours as a cooperative education student, which is now the Pathways program. And I have been working with the research operations and integration element for 15 years here. And I’ve done a lot of different experiment support in that time, and CIPHER is kind of a collaboration of all of them. So I work closely with Nikki and Cherie and our contractor team to implement the CIPHER experiment.

Host: Very cool. Well, I was glad to have you on board, a fellow co-op myself, so I’m very, very, very much like the program and, yeah, that’s why I’m here too, right? Kind of sold me on that. So awesome to have you. Nikki, welcome back.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Thank you.

Host: What’s, what, now, you’re the deputy element manager, project manager for CIPHER. Tell me about your role?

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 290: Preparing Humans for Longer Spaceflights Nicki Schwanbeck

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yeah. So I’m the deputy element manager for the Research Operations and Integration group of the Human Research Program for NASA. Everyone always says that’s the longest title in the world, and it is, but I’m also, as part of that, the CIPHER project manager. So I work with Laura and Cherie, and then we have another coordinator on our team, Gwen Sandoz, and the four of us kind of run the CIPHER project manager. Cherie and I are more the up and out communication with the ISS program, the Commercial Crew Program and with the Human Research Program. And we keep in touch with our contractor team, mainly through Laura and Gwen, but we all work together to get CIPHER going.

Host: So, yeah, I think that’s a really important distinction is this, you’re not just CIPHER, you got all these other, I mean, just like everybody we talk to really is we, the, the, the joke is all the hats. Everybody’s got like a whole collection of hats that you have to do. And so, we’re going to be talking about CIPHER, but you’re very much plugged into operational programs.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Correct.

Host: Awesome. Well, good to have you back.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Thanks.

Host: Cherie. Two-timer, now, three-timer on the podcast. Welcome.

Cherie Oubre:[Laughter] Yeah, thanks. Excited to be here. Excited to share some updates we have for CIPHER.

Host: So, just a refresher for our listeners, I know you’ve been on a couple of times, but deputy element scientist for Research and Operations and Integration element, just like Nikki. But you are the project scientist for CIPHER.

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 290: Preparing Humans for Longer Spaceflights

Cherie Oubre: I am the project scientist. I get the, the fun job of, as Nikki talked about sharing what we do with CIPHER to the upper management and the different levels. I also get to work with all of the different investigators to make sure that we’re capturing all of their science and representing it appropriately.

Host: And there are a lot of them. And that’s what we’re going to get into is this is, this is, it’s called a, an integrated protocol because there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle. And so, you know, we’ve addressed this before. We’ve talked about Cipher, but it’s been a bit, so let’s start from the beginning and just talk about what is CIPHER? Nicki, I’ll pass to you to give us just sort of an overview. What is it?

Nikki Schwanbeck: Sure. CIPHER is an acronym. First of all, it stands for the Compliment of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research. It is the most complex and comprehensive human research project we’ve ever undertaken in space. It’s an international effort. We work, have a few international partners that are part of the project as well. It is 14 individual studies that we’ve put together to optimize what we are doing with the crew members and the, the data collections and the sample collections that we’re taking from the crew members. But it does, it’s implemented by us here at NASA. But like I said, we are involved with the Germans, the, who else?

Cherie Oubre: DLR (German Space Center). Yeah, so DLR, JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency), Canada.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yeah.

Host: So yeah. ISS partners.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yes.

Host: So, folks we have a, a long-standing relationship with, which probably helps, right?

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yes.

Host: They’re very much used to alot of the things we’re doing on this space station, and that’s what CIPHER is, right? CIPHER the location where we’re doing this research, right, is we want to do this integrated protocol on the space station?

Cherie Oubre: Correct.

Host: Very cool. Now, the, there’s a lot to it, right? There’s, we’re going to go into CIPHER and, and all the different pieces, but it’s, it’s sort of a big project and, and the fact that we’re gathering here just a couple of years after our conversation before about CIPHER shows, just I think how widespread and, maybe complicated is a good word to, to say about CIPHER. So, so Cherie, how would you describe why this is a important thing to do? Why, why are we doing such a complicated suite of protocols and science?

Cherie Oubre: Yeah, no, great. That’s, that’s a really good thing for us to share. We know a fair amount of how the body responds in space, but we know it as a segmented discipline. CIPHER is really important because it can, because it’s going to give us that look across the human system itself. So, psychologically, and physiologically, we’re going to understand more on how that body responds to those changes in spaceflight. We’re able to characterize that and we’re going to identify areas where we need to provide support for those longer duration missions. So, we’ll identify where we need to make some countermeasures or make some changes to really enable that successful human long-duration spaceflight.

Host: Traditionally, when it comes to human research, has, is this, is CIPHER the approach here? Is it more integrated in terms of how everything comes together versus maybe how I would think about human research on the station beforehand is just kind of onesie, twosie, it’s kind of all on its own? It’s got its own, you know, everybody kind of has their own way of doing things and maybe it’s hard to, for the research to be integrated. Is that sort of the solution here that CIPHER is trying to tackle?

Cherie Oubre: Exactly. That’s what really what we’re looking for. And CIPHER, as Nikki mentioned, there’s 14 different investigations. We’ve put these all together specifically to give us that broad look across the human. In addition, we’re doing some data analysis. We’re really integrating that data and trying to gather as much information as we can, as we move forward to give us that real, that long-term look. And we’re also, and we’re doing that on different durations of missions to be able to, to, to characterize the changes.

Host: And I think that’s an important part of CIPHER, right?

Cherie Oubre: Yeah.

Host: Is, is one of the, one of the key pieces here are the different durations and we’ll definitely get into that, but, when it comes to, I think one of the, one of the big things here that I think a lot of people are excited about, may, of course, I think in the research community, but I think in the public too, is we’re talking about more one-year missions, right? A lot of people got behind the 2015 campaign with Scott Kelly. It was, it was a very exciting thing, and I think it’s very relatable because, when you think, think about missions to Mars, when you think about exploration missions, we know for a fact they’re going to be longer. And so, this just felt like a really good step towards that, right? And so, kind of revisiting that for just a second, Nikki, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll talk, toss it back to you. Thinking about the one-year mission, what was that what was important about it and, and how did that sort of lead us to CIPHER?

Nikki Schwanbeck: OK. Yeah. So that mission was a little bit different. We had a U.S. astronaut and a cosmonaut that were going to be up there for a year. It was, that compliment was developed and kind of cobbled together to make an emphasis on doing both U.S. and Russian research. And it was built off of research we already had in our flight queue, meaning things we were already doing. We were able to just adapt them to be done on a one-year mission versus on a six-month mission. Where the difference with this one is CIPHER was actually solicited. We put out a NASA solicitation and had investigators send us their recommendations of what they felt was important in different categories of science. And we took those proposals that were selected from that solicitation and then culled it down even further to come up with what we have, the, the 14 remaining studies.

Host: OK. So it’s, I guess a lot more pre-planning.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yes.

Host: Maybe?

Nikki Schwanbeck: Definitely.

Host: If there’s just, so we can go into it with, I can maybe, maybe it’s fair to say even more confidence that the results, what we’re going to get out of that one-year will be that much more robust.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Correct. Scott Kelly was already assigned to this mission. And then after he was assigned, it was extended to a year, so we only had maybe a year and a half to prepare for it. Whereas with CIPHER, we’ve been preparing for it for several years and really digging into the science and figuring out how to integrate, as Cherie talked about, all of these pretty complex science experiments into one experiment that they work together to figure out exactly what we want to learn on the human system.

Host: And Cherie, to expand upon that, that’s really what, you know, that’s really the work that you’ve been doing for the past couple of years, is bringing everybody together. What is that joint effort like? Just getting everyone, like, reaching out, getting the solicitations, like, like Nikki was saying, whittling down from there. I mean, it, it sounds like a very lengthy process.

Cherie Oubre: It’s, it’s been a little bit of a lengthy process. We’ve worked back and forth with the, the investigators themselves. We’ve also worked with the, the different funding elements to make sure that we’re capturing the data they need to understand their risks for space. So we’ve worked really closely together with everyone to integrate everything and be as efficient as possible, because when you’re taking 14 proposals, they’re coming in with a lot of resource requests time and hardware, and things like that. So we’re pulling all those together to something that’s actually manageable to implement on one individual crew member. So it, it’s taken some time to go back and forth. We’ve had lots of investigator meetings and, and, and working groups and, and finally come into a product that both elements, the investigators as well as, the crew members support and are excited about.

Host: I think, one, one of the things I remember from conversations I’ve had about the one-year mission, right, is there’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of researchers that want a lot of data. They want a lot from the astronaut, but there’s only so much blood. There’s only so much saliva, right? You can’t just like, be sucking the blood out of an astronaut. It’s just like, OK. So, so during the one-year mission in particular, they became very efficient at our, with a very small amount of blood, what can we do? And so, you’re thinking about the same things, even though there’s these, these, these grand suite of, of things that you guys are going to be looking at. You also have to look out for the astronaut and their health.

Cherie Oubre: Yep, exactly.

Host: All right. Now, Laura, we talked about sort of one, one of the pieces that is, I guess, part of the bread and butter of this, of CIPHER is the length of time. As in three categories, short-duration, I guess standard-duration, the six months that we’ve been seeing, and then there’s extended-duration. So, let’s go into that. What is, what is the suite? What are we looking at? What’s the data behind it? How many subjects and how many, you know, how many of each?

Laura Sarmiento: Yeah. So, like, like you guys have said, the, we have different cohorts of subjects for CIPHER, we aim to have ten subjects in each of these. So short-duration is roughly two to three months or so. The standard duration, as you mentioned, is like the six-month crew members that fly on station, and the extended duration is hoping to be closer to a year there. This allows us to kind of have a, a time course of how things can change with different systems. You know, in the six months, we know that, and I’m sure Sherry can expand on this, that, you know, some things, either get worse or get better or plateau. And we know that up to sort of like a six-month kind of standpoint, but we don’t know beyond. And so having the different cohorts of subjects allows us to see over time kind of how things change. One way that we’ve helped prepare us for things is we’ve organized CIPHER where pre-[flight] and post-flight data is the same regardless of the mission duration. So if someone is launched as a standard-duration subject, but their mission gets extended, like we’ve seen several times on space station here, we can convert them easily to an extended-duration subject, and be able to be flexible like that to make sure that we capture the most science that we can.

Host: And so, in terms of the, the planning with the station program, right? I’m guessing, you know, you have this set of data that you want. So are you just going to be, is the approach here to be passive in the fact that, you know, whatever happens, happens? If their mission gets extended, it gets extended? Or are you planning with the program? “Listen, we need a couple of astronauts to go only up for a couple of months or weeks or whatever to get our short-duration data set. We need a couple of long missions. So we, so we need you to plan for that.” How are you working with the station program?

Laura Sarmiento: It’s a little bit of both. I mean, obviously with the standard-duration, we’re, we’re pitching those as, as nominal, but…

Host: Yeah.

Laura Sarmiento:…I’ll probably let Nikki address the, the longer here in the shorter of how we’re working with the program for those. [Laughter]

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yeah. So logistically, it’s actually pretty difficult to do one-year missions. You know, you have to worry about vehicles and how the crew members are getting up and down. Now that we’re in the era of Commercial Crew, and we have SpaceX vehicles launching. SpaceX vehicles are only rated for so many days in space. I think it’s 210, 220…

Host: A single capsule can’t stay in dock to the station for a year.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Correct. So there, there are opportunities potentially to extend the, the safety rating of the vehicle, but that’s very difficult to do. Very timely and very expensive. There’s other options of, you know, having a taxi crew come up and bring a new vehicle and then come right back down and leave the crew on station for a longer duration. But there’s a lot of logistics and, and, and planning that goes into us. And it is, it is pretty costly to do it, as we found out over the last couple of years. So what we are, are doing now for the extended-duration missions are waiting for those opportunities that Laura talked about, you know, recently Frank Rubio was extended…

Host: Yeah.

Nikki Schwanbeck:…because of the Soyuz leak that happened on station back in December. So if he were already a CIPHER subject, we would’ve been able to easily convert him to an extend… or a one-year mission CIPHER subject. But CIPHER wasn’t quite ready when he launched.

Host: Right.

Nikki Schwanbeck: So he wasn’t a subject. But those are the kind of things that we’re, we’re, we’re looking for to try to get those extended mission duration subjects. And we think, you know, we’ve seen a, a, a decent amount of them. I think we’re up to, I think Frank is number six in the history of station that we’ve extended.

Host: OK.

Nikki Schwanbeck: So, you know, there probably are opportunities to do it in the future. The other one is of course, working with the Russians and perhaps getting a one-year Soyuz vehicle mission…

Host: Oh, OK.

Nikki Schwanbeck:…as well. And having one of our crew members who launches on a Soyuz be a CIPHER subject, so there’s just conversations continuing with both Commercial Crew Program and ISS program to try to get those opportunities.

Host: OK. Now, you know, I think one of the important elements here is that this is a, a volunteer sort of program, right? So it’s not like you’re forcing the astronauts, “we’re going to poke you.” Like they, they fully understand what they’re getting into, and they sign up. And so, what’s that process look like? Nikki, we’ll stick with you, the process to solicit to an astronaut, you know, say like, “would you like to be a part of this?” And then to get them into a flow for that pre-mission period where they can start doing science in order to make sure that they are fully prepared for, you know, their mission and then their post-mission period.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yeah. So about a year before they launched, all astronauts, international astronauts and NASA astronauts get, and what we call an informed consent briefing, where they get all of the human research, both from NASA and all from the international partner investigators. And they get to hear about the studies, what the studies are doing, what they’re trying to figure out, what the risks to them are in doing this study, because everything has a risk, obviously you’re taking blood, you could, you know, get a hematoma or something like that when you’re getting a blood draw. So there are different things that the crew members hear about, and then the crew member is allowed to select which studies they want to participate in. Everything human research is fully voluntary. And then from what they select or what they say they’re interested in participating in, our team puts together a compliment of studies. Whether that compliment is pre-made, like CIPHER, is our only pre-made compliment. The other ones that we have, we take the studies and figure out which ones work together, and then we put together that for the crew members to do those studies.

Host: So there’s the, even though, you know, you have, you have something prepared, but, it is almost personalized in a way…

Cherie Oubre: It is, very much.

Host:…because it is a volunteer. So you have to work, you have to work with that. Now, how do you make sure that the data is consistent across, you know, however many participants you want, because part of, I think part of the plan here is you do want X number of subjects, and I think the plan is still 30, right? 30 total.

Cherie Oubre: Yep. Yes. Ten, ten and ten.

Host: Ten short, ten standard, ten extended, right? So that’s a lot. That’s a lot. And that’s a lot of planning.

Cherie Oubre: Yep. [Laughter] It’s definitely a lot of planning.

Host: And so, how do you accomplish that? So I know like the space station, for example, right? We’re talking about, we’re thinking about station life this through 2020, maybe a little bit into the 2030s, just depending on how things shake out. So you need to, you have, you’re, you have a clock to, to get this stuff, right? So how, how, how are you working that?

Laura Sarmiento: Well, again, trying to, you know, we’ve made, as, as Cherie has mentioned, CIPHER a, you know, as integrated as possible and as lean as possible to be able to kind of, be able to do it on as many subjects as possible. And so, you know, the standard-duration, you know, is probably an easier target to get since we have more opportunities for that but again, like we mentioned sort of before, being flexible in our approach to this to allow for, if someone were to extend, or I don’t know if the possibility for someone to shorten is there, but if, if it is, then, you know, we have those opportunities to kind of capture those subjects in that time.

Host: Now, where are we in terms of the timeline for CIPHER when we checked in, or we’re talking about bringing everything together now? We’re, are we close to getting people to sign up? We have subjects, Cherie?

Cherie Oubre: Yeah. So we currently are working with pre-flight testing for two crew members that are launching this summer. So we have two subjects that are participating and we’re looking forward to additional subjects, as we move forward. So we’re, we’re starting this, we’re getting moving on this one. [Laughter]

Host: Any hints on who they are? Or we have to stay hush, hush on this?

Cherie Oubre: [Laughter] You’ll see them as they go through the process. [Laughter]

Host: OK. All right. Very, very good answer, Cherie. [Laughter] All right. All right. But that’s good. So, and I think it’s important, I think this in his distinction, right? When we talk about the, when we talk about how many samples you guys are looking for, and we talk about that, it’s not like it’s just one sample a year for 30 years, right? I mean, you have multiple crew going up at any given time. You, we have the Commercial Crew launches, we have the Soyuz launches, and so there is a significant pool of people to, that can ultimately end up participating. So…

Cherie Oubre: Yep.

Host:…that’s, that’s pretty exciting stuff. So let’s see. Looking at international community participation. Now this is, you know, we’re talking about, I want, I’m, I’m trying to buy some time until we get into the actual science, like what are we doing? But, but in terms of pulling from, you know, not only different science disciplines, but different communities we’ve talked about, we’ve talked about JAXA, we’ve talked about some, some other of our ISS partners that are coming in. Cherie, this is an important element, right? And I think it also is reflective of if we get the science community from these partners in, maybe we can see more participation from international astronauts as well. And maybe that’s part of the justification, but it also sort of adds to the compliment.

Cherie Oubre: Yeah. So we’re very excited that CIPHER is an international, international compliment of research. So we have studies from several different agencies, as, as we move forward, we’ll solicit crew members to participate from different agencies. And, and so, this is going to give us lots of information across not only NASA crew members, the whole participating as well. So it’ll be an interesting look and it, it’s kind of getting a, a little bit of a great community effort. So it’s not just U.S. investigations that we’re going forward with. So I think it, the support is, is out there for international as well.

Host: That’s very cool. All right, let’s get into the science. Now, last, last time we talked, we were talking about 17 research protocols and six disciplines. So Laura, where are we at now? How has CIPHER evolved?

Laura Sarmiento: Yeah. So we’ve combined a few protocols. So we and I are now with 14 research protocols. And that’s just more for ease of being able to plan a lot of this stuff because they had similar requirements of what they were looking at. And so, we’ve combined it into 14 protocols, and have commanded the disciplines as well to kind of be able to package this, you know, mostly for the crew. So like as, Nikki mentioned, we have, you know, informed consents and CIPHER is a lot to digest at once. So we’ve combined it into different disciplines and, and sort of, come, you know, put things together that makes sense in the types of testing that we’re doing. So, yeah.

Host: In terms of terminology for our listeners, just to help us understand what those distinctions are, what is a research protocol? What is a discipline?

Laura Sarmiento: Oh, yeah. So the research protocol is the individual protocol from the PI. So they’re, what the PI is looking at, the principal investigator there, is looking at for their specific research. The disciplines is just sort of how we’ve grouped different types of tests. So we have, you know, all of the blood and urine samples that we do our group together. We have a couple studies that are looking at the cardiovascular system. And so, we’ve grouped all of those together into a cardio section. And so that’s kind of what we mean by discipline is looking at the, the kind of section of the, of the body or the, of the discipline of the body that they’re looking to research.

Host: OK. Cherie, I’m going to go to you to help us to walk us through those disciplines.

Cherie Oubre: OK.

Host: Right? So, the first category that is, is bone and joint health.

Cherie Oubre: Yes.

Host: So what’s this category? What’s this discipline?

Cherie Oubre: Yeah. So for bone and joint health, really these are studies that look at the astronauts, and understand the changes that are happening to their bones and joints. We’ve seen that they lose bone density, and muscle quality faster in space than on Earth. So we really want to understand how does that happen? Defining what the calcium loss, really happens to be, and, and how that, that changes their skeletal system as they rebuild when they come back. So what do we need to provide for support later on to prevent that loss from happening or to regain the strength when they return?

Host: OK. And the next one is brain and behavior.

Cherie Oubre: Yes. [Laughter] So this, this is a very interesting one. So, as spaceflight happens, fluids in the brain shift due to that low gravity in space, and the long-duration spaceflight may slightly alter brain structure. And these changes could affect how the brain processes that spatial information, and, and affect crew performance. So if they’re not understanding what’s changing in their environment, they may not respond exactly how you would expect on the ground. So the, these studies are really understanding how those changes happen and how that impacts the crew responses, especially as we’re going longer duration with less support from the ground, it’ll be under, it’ll be important to understand how those crew will respond in certain situations.

Host: Cardiovascular.

Cherie Oubre: [Laughter] For cardiovascular itself, research has shown that long-duration spaceflight can lead to stiffer arteries and, and increase the risk of heart disease in particular. Really the science, scientists are going to understand those changes and, and how they alter and potentially impact those, those longer duration missions. And there’s various ways they’re going to do that. The, it, some of the novel ways that are happening, that we haven’t been able to look for in-flight, they’re doing some, some CTs (computed tomography), some MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and, and lots of different imaging modalities to get a better understanding of really the changes that happened to the cardiovascular system.

Host: And these, a lot of these were picked just from our understanding of what happens to the human body in space anyway, right? Like, we already know there are cardiovascular changes. We already…

Cherie Oubre: Yep.

Host:…have been doing a lot of cognitive and, and, you know, behavioral studies, bone, and health, that’s a very common one that’s like one we always point to.

Cherie Oubre: [Laughter] Exactly.

Host: Is like, oh, bone and muscle loss.

Cherie Oubre: Yeah.

Host: You know, these are very common things. And so, that’s, is that sort of the reason why you’re grouping some of these things together?

Cherie Oubre: Yeah, it, it, that’s the perfect example of why we’re, we’re trying to group these together, but really with CIPHER, it, it’s unique that we can look across those systems in the same human and analyze how those different systems interact with one another.

Host: Yeah.

Cherie Oubre: For example, if there’s, you know, changes in immune function, does that lead to inflammation that cause cardiovascular responses? Those types of things across the human is what really what we’re looking to understand more.

Host: Because I, I think what’s interesting is the next discipline that I was going to reference was exercise, right? But the first thing that comes to mind is a lot of the bone studies and everything, there’s, there’s some crossover, right?

Cherie Oubre: Yes.

Host: With between the bone and muscle loss. There’s, there’s the exercise. So, so describe like, you know, exercise as a discipline in of itself, but then how you distinguish the exercise discipline from the bone discipline?

Cherie Oubre: And a lot of it’s very artificially done to separate those.

Host: Oh, Interesting.

Cherie Oubre: And that’s why this is, this is very unique to look at both. So exercise is going to have impacts on the bone, and so it’s going to have impacts on cardiovascular fitness. So the, and, exercise has some impacts on spatial orientation and cognition as well. So there, there’s a lot of overlap. So we separate them because we traditionally have so piped and separated them. And that’s how we look at things. And a lot of studies have been done individually looking at exercise. So, this gives us an opportunity to look at the impacts on other systems as well.

Host: Does it also help you with the protocols, like with the disciplines, right? So like, there, there can be a specific protocol in the bone discipline…

Cherie Oubre: Yes.

Host:…that’s more, that’s just different from something that is exercise.

Cherie Oubre: Yes.

Host: Right? And that, OK. So that’s, that kind of helps you, all right.

Cherie Oubre: So, so if you look at the bone discipline, they’re going to look very deep in bone turnover and how things, exactly, how things happen. Exercise is going to look at ways to prevent some of the bone loss or mitigate some of the issues. So we’re understanding exactly how the change happens and trying to help prevent some of the decrement as well.

Host: Oh, OK. It’s like a cause and understanding versus like, this is just like the countermeasure and the OK.

Cherie Oubre: Yes.

Host: I understand. OK. Ah, yeah. It’s all clicking. All right. Yeah. See, sensory motors the next one.

Cherie Oubre: Yeah. Perfect. So sensory motors probably one that people think of the, one of the most when crew members return.

Host: Yeah.

Cherie Oubre: So when they’re readapting to gravity itself. So a lot of times the astronauts are going to have some dizziness and disorientation when they arrive at station because they’re changing gravity, so up and down, or not the same as what you, what the cues that you’re used to on Earth. And then the way when they return to Earth, it’s a very similar situation. They’re used to floating around and now they have this gravity that’s pulling down on them. So really understanding how the crew adapt to those changes, how quickly they adapt, and how we can help them adapt, especially when we go to places like on Mars, when there aren’t people there to support them going through some of those changes and they have to figure out, OK, I’m able to do particular exercises or things like that, that help us reorient to our new gravitational situation.

Host: So is it fair to say that like some of these sensory, the protocols that are in that sensory motor discipline may be something that we’ve seen like in the Kazakh Steppe, which is, you know, some of these like, what was the study back in the, in the Kazakh Steppes, standard measures or…

Cherie Oubre: Yep. So.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Field test.

Cherie Oubre: Field test. Yep.

Host: Field test. Something like that. But you’re going to be doing it on like, the SpaceX boat and in the desert for, for Boeing. Is that sort of like, can we see more of those? And that’s part of this.

Cherie Oubre: That’s exactly part of this. Actually, standard measures is part of CIPHER.

Host: Oh, really?

Cherie Oubre: So it’s all those same measures where you have extra things that will happen right after landing…

Host: Yeah.

Cherie Oubre:…that will add on to look at some of virtual reality goggles and, and we’ll add in some of the exercise with the egress fitness testing.

Host: Oh, cool.

Cherie Oubre: Those types of things. So we’ll, we’ll test the sensory motor and we’ll add some of those other measures as well right after landing.

Host: Very cool. So yeah, for, for those who are following along with these missions, if you see like a pop-up tent in the desert, like that’s what’s — that’s what’s going on. The next one is vision. Another big one…

Cherie Oubre: Yes.

Host:…when it comes to spaceflight that we talk about a lot.

Cherie Oubre: Yeah. So that spaceflight associated…

Multiple Speakers: Neuro-ocular –

Cherie Oubre: Neuro-ocular.

Host: The support, you got the support group. Yeah. [Laughter]

Cherie Oubre: [Laughter] That was a, that was a moment.

Host: Yeah.

Cherie Oubre: Or SANS, as we all like to call it, is one. We’re still trying to understand and learn a little bit more on why those, those vision changes are happening? And this part of the protocol helps us look at that and, and understand how fluid shift impacts? How the, the function of the eyes changed impacts on the brain, those types of alterations that we’re seeing.

Host: Very cool. Last one is biomarkers.

Cherie Oubre: So this one is one that we have spent a lot of time on.

Host: Really.

Cherie Oubre: This is one where we have integrated as much as possible. You talked about it earlier, there’s only so much blood that we can get…

Host: Yeah.

Cherie Oubre:…from a crew member. And so, what we did, the teams worked very hard to identify any areas of overlap. If we can data share any measures that we’re doing, make sure we’re collecting things on standard timelines, and be as efficient as possible. We get the most amount of science that we can from all of these biological samples. So blood and urine, and saliva sample collections in particular are what we’re looking for here.

Host: I thought that was an interesting discipline because, you know, like, the, the way that you categorize things, it, it’s, it’s a mix of, of why you picked the disciplines that you did. Like, so one is like bones, right?

Cherie Oubre: Yea.

Host: That, that makes sense to me. You focus on the bones. There you go. OK. So we want to learn about bones, but biomarkers is just the stuff that we get…

Cherie Oubre: Yeah.

Host:…and you just put it into one category. But the reasoning is because of exactly what you just said, is because everybody wants stuff. So if we put it into one discipline, how can we best utilize the, this stuff?

Cherie Oubre: Yeah. Yeah. And so, biomarkers, I mean, really everybody is wanting something from those biomarkers…

Host: Yeah.

Cherie Oubre:…from head to toe. [Laughter]

Host: Yeah.

Cherie Oubre: It’s important information for, for, to use.

Host: Scientists are gross. [Laughter]

Cherie Oubre: I said it nicely. Head to toe. [Laughter]

Host: [Laughter] Very cool though. Thank you. I, I know that was a lot. I had you, I was focused on just you Cherie for a bit to, to take us through that whole thing, but it was, it was, it was awesome. So, so thank you for taking us through that. But, going back to the planning, Nikki, I’ll, I’ll toss to you for just a second. Now, in terms of, you know, one-year missions, in terms of the, the standard stuff, when you’re actually running it, when you’re actually doing it, what is that like? Is, do you have researchers from all over just, you know, constantly working with the payload operations and, and doing real-time things? You know, is it, are, is it just, how, how are you working with the pre-mission, post-mission or pre-mission during mission, post-mission with all of the researchers to make sure everybody gets their time?

Nikki Schwanbeck: We have an amazing team that is behind all of this, we have folks who are specifically focused on the pre-[flight] and post-flight testing and, and making sure the crew members follow the constraints that are required to do the testing, both pre-[flight] and post-flight, schedule everything with their crew schedulers, make sure they can get to the hospitals to do their MRI scans and things like that. We also have a team who runs all of our in-flight operations. And they sit console. We have our own control center in MCC (mission control center) called the Telescience [Support] Center.

Host: Oh.

Nikki Schwanbeck: And the reason it’s our own is because we have a lot of video on conversations that are crew private medical data. Essentially, even though it’s for research that is, we try to keep very private, so that it’s only the who needs to know is there and, in the room, and it’s very closed off. Like I can’t even go in the room even though when they’re doing these sessions, even though I’m the project manager, because we want to protect crew, crew privacy. And so, and then behind those operations folks, we have people who are specifically assigned to just one of the experiments in CIPHER. So they’re called, science support personnel, and they’re there to help answer science questions. They know the ins and outs; they know the procedures. They can help the operations folks, they can answer PI questions, they can run down, if a question comes from the crew for the PI, maybe the PI’s not present in the TSC, they’re, they’re remotely tied in. They can work with the PI to get the crew the answer that they need. If something goes wrong, everyone kind of pulls together and, and just tries to do the best we can for the crew member. So we also look at, sometimes a crew, says, you know, “hey, can I do this test later in the day?” So then the team will go off and look and say, “OK, can they do the test later in the day? Are there constraints? Can, does he have to fast? So is he going to like not be able to eat any food until noon because he doesn’t want to do this till later? Or can he exercise before it or does he have to wait till later?” So there’s just a lot of things that the team that goes into this, that the team really keeps track of and looks, looks at it. And I honestly don’t know how they keep track of everything. It’s a lot of information.

Host: It is, that, I think, and that’s what I’m trying to get at here, is just like, you talk about, we, we have a team, we have a, and it sounds very expansive. You have folks that are, that are working with the flight operations teams. You obviously have to work with all of the different researchers, right? So you have to be in constant communication with them. You can’t, who, someone’s got to be tracking all the biomarkers, right? So, that’s Laura. [Laughter]

Laura Sarmiento: Well, the organization of, of kind of everything there. I mean, so…

Host: Yeah, the organization, OK.

Laura Sarmiento:…it, a lot of spreadsheets.

Host: Yeah.

Laura Sarmiento: A lot of meetings to make sure that we’re kind of all on the same page there. And yeah, so the, as the flight project manager, I’m kind of the, oversee all of the different individual teams of CIPHER. So as, as Nikki mentioned, each of the kind of disciplines that we have of CIPHER has its own team of folks that, as looking at the specific requirements of that, of that particular section of CIPHER. And it’s, it’s a lot to kind of track and keep up with. I know. And that’s why we kind of chose to, to, to separate things out by disciplines in, in order to kind of break it down into smaller chunks to be able to actually implement.

Nikki Schwanbeck: To make it more manageable.

Host: Yeah, because it has to be, right?

Laura Sarmiento: Yep.

Host: It’s, it’s too much for like a single person.

Laura Sarmiento: Oh yeah.

Host: I know, I know you’re doing a lot of spreadsheets, but you have to rely on other people.

Laura Sarmiento: Oh yeah. I definitely have to rely on the teams. You know, they, they are the experts in the knowledge. Like I, I definitely have a big picture idea, but you know, if there’s, that’s, that, my, my brain isn’t big enough for all of that. [Laughter]

Host: I think it’s fair to say this is probably the biggest undertaking that the Human Research Program has, has taken on.

Laura Sarmiento: Yes.

Host: I mean we, they’ve taken on some big, big projects, but just because of the expanse of this and because it’s so integrated with a lot of different disciplines, this is probably the, the biggest, the biggest research project that, of, in NASA’s history, maybe.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yeah. It’s been in development for a while. I mean, obviously, you know, I would say the start of it began after we did the one-year mission with Scott Kelly and some of the findings then HRP management was like, “you know, this is a good idea.” And so, it really started then. And then we got all of the protocols from the solicitation in, and we did kind of a, a quick feasibility assessment, as far as, you know, information of how easy or how hard it would be to do it on station. And we provided the information to HRP and that’s what went into part of, part of what went into the culling down of those studies, into the ones that they selected. But that was in late 2018. So, but from that point to the time we got our first subject was four years. So four years of development have has gone into this.

Host: Wow. Yeah. [Laughter] That’s, it’s been a long time coming, but it is exciting. You’re talking about this summer, right? To start kicking it off?

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yeah.

Host: So is there, is there evolution built into the plan? So you have, you’ve, like you said, it’s been a long time coming, you and you have this, is it rigid, right? We want to maintain that science and we want to, this is the protocol and that’s the way it’s going to stay for the rest. Or is there some learning and development and refining that happens along the way?

Laura Sarmiento: Yeah, so what we’ve really worked hard on is identifying those gold-standard tried and true type of tests and, and methods that we’re using. The goal is that we have that consistency…

Host: Yep.

Laura Sarmiento:…across CIPHER, so that we can not only look at that individual’s variability, look at the variability across crew members. So we really need to make sure we’re implementing this consistently across the different durations and the different crew to be able to understand those changes and, and really get the, the statistical analysis that we need to, to identify if those changes are, are really being seen or not.

Host: OK. Now, in terms of, you know, planning for the future, so one, one thing that I’m thinking of is, I, I mentioned this in the beginning is, you know, station, we have it for, you know, another decade, right? But there’s this, there’s this idea of commercialization and commercial destinations that happen in low-Earth orbit. Is the plan, you know, if you don’t make your, your n equals 30, is the plan to continue it on? Or are you trying to maximize the time with International Space Station and then kind of bounce off from there?

Nikki Schwanbeck: I think we’re trying to maximize what’s going on with the International Space Station.

Host: Yeah.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Part of its because, you know, we as NASA control that and we have our hardware and everything that we need to do this study on station. Right now, we don’t quite know what the commercial platforms are going to be able to offer.

Host: That’s fair.

Nikki Schwanbeck: And we don’t know much about it yet. So we’re going to maximize what we know, what the known is at the time, get as much done as we can. And once we learn more about what the commercial platforms are going to be able to offer, then, you know, obviously, if we still have outstanding subjects or more data that we, we feel like we need, then we can certainly consider that.

Host: It goes back to your point Cherie, about that consistency, right? If the, if the environment changes, then you know, you, you want reliable science, reliable data. And so, if you can go to the same place for as long as possible, that certainly helps. Using the same equipment, right? You don’t know if you’re going to have new research, hardware, new equipment, so you just want more of the same. So that makes a lot of sense. But this is all preparing for, you know, I think a lot of the interest here, you know, you Nikki, you said, you know, this sort of kicked off after the, the one-year mission. This is preparing for longer missions, right? So I think that’s the exciting part about this is, you know, we’re, we have low-Earth orbit, we’re maximizing the use of the International Space Station as a test platform because we want to better understand the important part of getting the boots on Mars is understanding that human, and this is, this right here, is the integrated solution to best in the, in the time that we have left with the International Space Station, to best use it for human research. And that’s pretty exciting. You, you guys are a part of that. You’ve, you’ve invented it, you’ve built it from the ground up. A lot of history that’s come into it, but your part of something really grand here. This could be the final like, home stretch to understand as much as possible. Of course, you know, there’s, there’s still things that we can learn, it’s not like we’re done after, after space station, but it’s got to be exciting Laura to just be a part of that.

Laura Sarmiento: Yeah. I mean, well it’s definitely been challenging because it’s been, you know, new and trying to figure out how to organize it all. Like, part of the exciting part for me is, has been getting to work with some of our international partners a little bit more, because we don’t normally do that on a, a lot of cases. And then kind of like I mentioned in the beginning too, I mean, this is a culmination of kind of a lot of the different projects that I’ve been on. So some of the principal investigators with CIPHER I’ve worked with for years. So it’s been cool to kind of see the evolution of how they’ve changed their protocols as, as they’ve learned things as well. And you know, getting to work at the team in different ways as well, because we’ve had to be a little bit creative and adaptive and innovative with our processes to, in order to get this to work. So, that’s been kind of a, a, an interesting thing for me since I, you know, using my experience to, to be able to get this to work has been kind of cool to see. And I’m excited that we’re, that we’re finally starting. [Laughter]

Host: Yeah. Cherie, I’m, I’m curious to hear your perspective too, because as, as, as the sort of science person here, the project scientist, you’re thinking, I think you got — you have more exposure to a different kinds of human research than a lot of people. And so, seeing that, seeing the breadth of human research, and understanding what Laura, what Nikki, what others are doing to bring it all together and make it into one protocol from a scientific perspective, what excites you about the possibilities that CIPHER is going to bring?

Cherie Oubre: Yeah, so really, everything excites me about it because we are really pulling together data that we wouldn’t have looked at together before. So this is going to give us a whole new perspective on how that human adapts and, and give us a new level of understanding of how things change and, and how spaceflight impacts that human in where we can go from here and, and it’s just, it’s going to open up, I, I know some new questions that we haven’t had before, which is, is extremely exciting for me. We’ll answer some old questions, but we’ll get some new ones that we’ll be able to really look at and, and gain more insight and, and just have a whole new level of understanding. So that’s really what’s exciting for me.

Host: Yeah. And Nikki, for you, I mean, you’ve been working on this for a long time and as, as the project manager, the person that’s sort of trying to make everything come together, the exciting part here is that you have subjects in the very near future and you get to, I mean, you’re, you’re going to start here. Is there a sense of relief or is it just more anxiety that, “oh my gosh, now I got to kick this thing off and it’s just going to be…” you know, like what’s, what’s your feelings going into?

Nikki Schwanbeck: It’s definitely both. [Laughter]

Host:Both. OK. [Laughter] And it will be for a long time.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yes. It’s very exciting to get started to have our first subject, subjects, you know, start through the process and, and even to get feedback from them on as they’re doing some of the pre-flight testing. So I’m excited when they do, when we do our first session on station to actually see like all of everything come together. It’ll be, it’ll be very exciting.

Host: A visual of all the…

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yes.

Host:…work that you’ve been putting into. It’s been spreadsheets up till up till now, right?

Nikki Schwanbeck: Yeah. [Laughter]

Host: So, very cool. Is there ground testing though? Is there stuff like you practice the procedures and you kind of get the, the subjects accustomed to what it’s going to take, because they’re, you know, you don’t have a research person that’s going to be poking and prodding. They sort of have to do it themselves, right? So…

Nikki Schwanbeck: That’s right. Yeah.

Host: I keep mentioning the poking and prodding. I’m sorry. I was like, it’s definitely more than just poking…

Nikki Schwanbeck: You’re very focused on… [Laughter]

Host: Yeah…there’s a lot of complicated stuff, but yeah, I, just, yeah. But yeah, they, they have to get accustomed to that.

Cherie Oubre: Yeah. So what we do pre-flight, we do a lot of baseline data collection, so we really understand what their baseline is before they fly. So we do a lot of testing before flight.

Host: I see.

Cherie Oubre: We also do a lot of training, so they understand what hardware they’re using, what data that they’ll be gathering, how they do their poking and prodding.

Host: Yeah. [Laughter]

Cherie Oubre: All those different things. So they’re prepped for that when they get in flight. So nothing’s new to them. No hardware’s new. They, they, they’ve seen it all before, before they get up into station.

Host: Very exciting. Well, this is great. I, I’m, I’m excited that we got to chat ahead of the, of first couple of subjects. I hope we learned so much from it. And the fact that we got to talk now I think is very, very appropriate because this is going to kick off a whole, a whole couple of year, couple of years. Listen to me, a decade probably of, of, of research. And that is, I mean, the fact that of all the work that’s been put in to get to this moment and prepare for that, try to get as robust human science, and low-Earth orbit as possible through the life of station is going to be, is super exciting. So thank you all. Laura, Cherie, Nikki for coming on and, and describing CIPHER. Really exciting stuff. And all the best for, for the next couple of years. It’s going to be very exciting.

Laura Sarmiento: Great.

Nikki Schwanbeck: Thank you.

Cherie Oubre: Thanks for having us.


Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Hope you learned something today. It was great to catch up with Cherie and with Nikki, again, welcome back to the podcast and of course, Laura did a great job on her first run here on Houston We Have a Podcast. Really good conversation. I hope you enjoyed it. We have not, this is not the first time we’ve talked about CIPHER. We’ve had these guests on before, particularly Cherie and Nikki, to talk about CIPHER back when it was in its planning phase. Just now, of course, for this episode, we’re right before some of the first subjects. But on episode 186, which was titled at the time, “The Next One-Year Missions.” You can go listen to Cherie and Nikki describe this CIPHER back when it was first being planned. And you can sort of pick up on some of the differences and the evolution of what’s been worked over these past couple of years to refine CIPHER, is pretty interesting stuff. If you want to go back there, you can also listen to Episode 127. We talked with Cherie Oubre, she’s, this is her third time on the podcast, but back on 127, we talked about her role as a in human research integration and what it takes to bring several disciplines together. That’s another interesting discussion because you can see how much her role has expanded over time. And then we referenced, of course, the one-year mission, but we didn’t talk too much about another human research study called, “The Twin Study.” And you can go back and listen to episode 87 titled, “The Twin Study” to learn more about that investigation. And it’s also a really good discussion of how things have evolved in the human research world here at NASA. So 87, if you want to check those out. Otherwise, you can check out our full collection on and listen to them in no particular order. And if you want to talk to us, we’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages. You can use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea or ask a question. And if you want to talk to us specifically, just make sure you mention us, Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on April 18th, 2023. Thanks to Will Flato, Pat Ryan, Belinda Pulido, Heidi Lavelle, and Jaden Jennings. And of course, thanks again to Cherie Oubre, Nikki Schwanbeck, and Laura Sarmiento for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.