A few years ago, NASA contemplated a daunting dilemma. If an astronaut went on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station to fix some equipment and was somehow injured in the process, how would he or she be checked out for possible broken bones? It was impractical to put a big, bulky X-ray machine or an MRI or CAT device on the station, where space is at a premium. The orbiting facility does have access to ultrasound equipment, which uses high-frequency sound waves to make a picture of the inside body, and is light and compact enough to fit into the equivalent of two large suitcases. But that presented another problem, because performing and analyzing an ultrasound exam would require that astronauts devote 18 months to special training, on top of all their other preparations for space.
Fortunately, Scott Dulchavsky, a surgeon who is an investigator with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, had an ingenious brainstorm. What if NASA set up a communications link that allowed experts back on Earth to guide the astronauts in performing ultrasounds, and then see the results on a screen so that they could make a diagnosis? It was an innovation that turned to be lifesaver—not just in space, but on Earth, where telemedicine systems similar to the one on the ISS now allow traveling nurses in remote parts of Africa, South America and the Arctic to use portable ultrasound devices to perform scans on pregnant women and relay the data via cellphone to doctors hundreds or thousands of miles away.
“Somebody could have done this on Earth, possibly, but they didn’t,” explains Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the program. “Necessity in space is what drove it.”
The remote ultrasound process is just one of a vast number of technological innovations developed as a result of the space station. Some are the sort of inventions that you’d expect from research on an orbital spacecraft, such as a magnetic docking system that makes it easier to retrieve small satellites, and a new high-tech coating for insulation that allows it to better withstand the rigors of space. But the station, surprisingly, also has generated scores of health-related breakthroughs--ranging from a method for delivering cancer-fighting medication directly to tumors and a device that can help asthmatics breathe easier, to a robotic arm that can perform delicate surgery inside an MRI machine.
In 2005, Congress officially designated NASA’s portion of the station as an official national laboratory, Today, with the help of private sector funding, scientists in diverse disciplines ranging from physics to physiology benefit from doing experiments in a microgravity environment, where chemicals, materials and the human body itself tends to behave differently than on Earth. “If you don’t control every variable, you really don’t understand your system,” Robinson explains. “And all of science has been done with gravity, not controlled, as a variable.” As a result, “we keep on having these huge surprises” when experiments are replicated in orbit.
They also can create better vacuums, and observe the effects of radiation levels that are higher than on our planet’s surface, though not as dangerously intense as deep space.
Congress’s mandate requires half of the station’s research to provide benefits to people on Earth. But as Robinson explains, even experiments designed purely for increasing scientific knowledge or furthering NASA’s mission of space exploration also eventually have an application on the ground as well. One prime example, she says, is research to study the effects of the space environment upon salmonella, a bacterium that causes food poisoning. NASA was worried that the microbe might possibly pose a greater danger to astronauts’ immune systems, which are weakened in orbit. But the scientists made a discovery with more far-reaching implications, when they were able to identify a set of genes that controlled salmonella’s degree of virulence, and figured out how to turn it on or off.
The space station also provided pharmaceutical manufacturer Amgen with the opportunity to test several medications for their ability to curb wasting loss of bone and muscle, processes that occur far more rapidly in microgravity than they do on Earth. (“An elderly woman with osteoporosis loses about 1.5 percent of her bones per year on Earth,” Robinson explains. “An astronaut, without any intervention, would lose about 1.5 percent each month.”) NASA flew laboratory mice to the station to further the drug maker’s studies. As a result, one of the drugs, Prolia, is now on the market, while others are making their way through the federal regulatory pipeline.
Another recent line of space station research is aimed at finding a way to protect astronauts’ vision, which sometimes worsens on space missions, apparently because microgravity causes increased intercranial pressure that squishes their optic nerves. “It’s related to the fluid shift to the head, from not having gravity pulling your body fluid down to your feet,” Robinson says. (For reasons that remain mysterious, the condition only affects male astronauts, and bothers some but not others.) Eventually, space station researchers hope to find a noninvasive way to measure intercranial pressure, a breakthrough that could benefit patients on Earth as well.
NASA also has developed numerous technologies in the space station program which are now available for commercial licensing. In order to purify water on the station, for example, researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center developed an innovative filtration device that utilizes acoustics rather than gravitational pressure to push water through small-diameter carbon nanotubes, which act as a filter. “The innovation is applicable to numerous situations on Earth where there is a need to collect potable, medical-grade water from a contaminated water supply,” NASA’s website explains. The space agency is also offering the rights to a special exercise machine, whose springs and cams are designed to provide astronauts’ muscles with the same degree of resistance in a microgravity environment that they would experience while lifting weights or running on a treadmill on Earth. On Earth, that gadget might someday enable fitness club exercisers or physical therapy patients to get a more productive workout.