The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration is always on the cutting edge when it comes to technology, and many of the medical advances made both on the ground and in orbit help keep explorers and the earthbound safe. Many discoveries from space keep us healthy, but development of programs and support equipment on the ground has led to a form of telemedicine (the practice of medicine without the doctor in the same room, hemisphere or even on the same plane) unique to space exploration.
Long before astronauts ascend into space, telemedicine allows doctors to research their candidates’ medical histories and make determinations on who to allow into the space programs. The International Space Station, or ISS, has very stringent shared requirements for all nations who make use of the space. Clinical integration enables quick transfer of medical information so the right candidates get selected, and doctors can track their progress as they move through the necessary steps towards space adventure.
While many astronauts have backgrounds in the military or science arena, all undergo additional rigorous training for what to do when the unexpected occurs. This includes training for medical situations that may be encountered on board their shuttles or while in the ISS. From important medical information on overcoming illness when weightless to more trivial things such as avoiding some of the gross side effects of space life, this training prepares astronauts for every aspect of being away from the planet.
Doctors across the world remain in constant contact, using telemedicine to monitor the health status of astronauts and even providing real-time feedback on how to appropriately exercise to minimize bone and muscle loss over time. When emergencies occur, astronauts rely first on their training and second on the fast response from ground-based medical professionals.
While no doctor can get to space from Earth in time to address a serious wound, emergency responders on the ground can walk others through potentially dangerous and complicated medical procedures using a combination of cameras and diagnostic tools designed specifically for space exploration. After the emergency passes, the information gathered by astronauts and ground teams can prove invaluable for future space travel. The ability to provide a rapid response to health emergencies also makes the concept of space tourism, and even medical tourism in space some day, seem that much safer.
The number and type of diagnostic tools available in space is greatly limited compared to those found in hospitals. The weight of the equipment is only one factor, as the operation of many devices could be hazardous to other missions. NASA’s contributions to telemedicine include examination of common tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), equipment and X-ray devices to determine which are safe for use on shuttles or the ISS. One of the most useful discoveries has been the exceptional usefulness of ultrasound in space.
Ultrasound produces no radiation, it requires little space, and it doesn’t affect sensitive magnetic equipment or experiments, making it an ideal diagnostic tool for astronauts. No one can hear sound out in the vacuum of space, but ultrasound captures images differently based on whether the sound travels through flesh, bone or connective tissue. This makes it invaluable for determining the scope of emergency injuries, like twisted joints or injured bones, as well as assessing overall health. Doctors can use ultrasound to measure bone density along with accompanying muscle loss due to lack of gravity and develop training programs designed to combat these common health effects, for example.
Advances made in medical technology affect both astronauts and earthbound lives. Future changes could include more lightweight and unobtrusive measurement and diagnostic tools as well as real-time tracking of even more data as collection techniques develop. The hospital of the future may include small medical bags able to diagnose and address the most common concerns, but one thing is certain: the technology used to keep us all safe and healthy is sure to come from both the heavens and the earth as we continue to explore outside our atmosphere.