SpaceX Inspiration4, funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, recently orbited the Earth for three days with an all-civilian crew. It was preceded by two shorter spaceflights also funded by billionaires: Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson and Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos.
After the excitement over the novelty of these space trips waned, many people wondered: Why don’t these billionaires spend their money to help with problems we already have on Earth rather than spending it on exclusive jaunts to space?
The mission of commercial space companies is to take people away from the Earth. But given the likelihood humanity will long be Earth-bound, trips into the thermosphere and beyond create incredible opportunities to explore space while at the same time making the Earth a better place by creating new, otherwise unattainable knowledge that advances the field of medicine. Fortunately, some of the commercial spaceflight companies are already partnering with NASA and its affiliates to take advantage of this moment to contribute to scientific research that enhances human health.
Because what happens to the human body in space so closely approximates what happens to people as they age on Earth, spaceflight has enhanced knowledge about human health and will continue to do so.
The pandemic may have brought telemedicine out of the shadows, but many of the capabilities that enable it were put in place by the space program in the 1970s and have been tested ever since. NASA had to rely on telemedicine to keep its astronauts healthy. The same technology that pumps hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel through the Space Shuttle’s engines today keeps adults and children alive with heart-assist implants while they wait indefinitely for a heart from an organ donor. Early space missions to the moon helped us define better ways to make food safer to eat and contributed to a universally adopted management system for food safety, the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP).
These three examples demonstrate how space-related inventions have advanced health care for the many, not just the few and the wealthiest. These innovations arose during the quest to visit space because the science that keeps astronauts healthy directly translates to practices and products that keep citizens healthy.
NASA has been making steady progress in solving health care challenges in space since its inception. The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), which we are affiliated with, is closely partnered with NASA to fund innovative space health research projects with two goals: to help astronauts stay healthy and to apply the lessons learned from space health research to benefit everyone on Earth. Advances in physical and mental health surveillance, prevention, and medical treatments are still needed for astronaut health care, and can push forward technology to monitor, treat, and prevent conditions on terra firma.
In spaceflight, keeping humans healthy is a challenge because the environment — lack of gravity, radiation, and close quarters — is hostile to physical and mental health. An astronaut crew, most of whom are not doctors, must take care of themselves when on a mission to the International Space Station, the moon, or Mars, and avoid becoming sick or depressed.
Over the past year, while socially isolating at home, most of us have experienced a situation similar to what life would be like for astronauts living in a confined space with crewmates on a long-duration mission to Mars, through which they must remain mentally resilient. Space health researchers are refining next-generation probiotics with the potential to combat mental health concerns. Why probiotics? The vast collection of microorganisms that live in each human’s gut, known as the microbiome, is now thought to influence overall health, including mood and behavior. It’s an area of research that will have applications for everyone.
Monitoring the health of astronauts on spaceflights offers the same challenges as monitoring the health of Earthlings during pandemic isolation. The constraints of the spaceflight environment call for entirely passive new technology that can monitor body systems for change. Emerald Innovations, a company founded by Dina Katabi, has developed a passive monitoring system that can detect breathing rate and body movement from analyzing radio frequency signals similar to those used by Wi-Fi and mobile networks. This AI-aided system has been shown to predict whether a person is getting better or sicker. The technology was tested in a nursing home during the Covid pandemic. This technology could enable medical staff in nursing homes and hospitals to minimize contact with sick patients while still being able to closely monitor them. The Emerald research is one of many projects supported by TRISH.
Commercial space endeavors can help develop these and other cutting-edge health technologies for use by NASA because, as private companies, they have the advantage of moving quickly. The new era of private-sector space explorers will deepen the health care knowledge base. In making space travel more accessible and routine, a broader spectrum of space travelers will present challenges and test solutions that can be used to improve the well-being of people the world over with a range of medical conditions.
While astronauts have primarily been middle-aged white men in peak physical condition, today’s commercial space travelers come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. As a result, organizations like TRISH that fund space health research are excited to support research on both traditional astronauts and non-traditional, private passengers to ensure that the impact of space missions can be translated for everyone on Earth.
TRISH partnered with the SpaceX Inspiration4 (I4) mission. Its four-member crew collected research-grade measurements of their heart rates and rhythm, movement, sleep, and blood oxygen saturation data. They performed a series of tests to assess changes in their behavioral and cognitive performance. They also scanned several organ systems via a Butterfly IQ+ Ultrasound device, which is designed with artificial intelligence guidance for non-medical experts. They collected blood and other body fluid samples before flight so that researchers can look for markers of how they adapted to space. The I4 crew also collected drops of their blood while in orbit and tested them for markers of immune function and inflammation using a state-of-the-art miniaturized device called the vertical flow immunoassay. All this information is being collected and banked for future use by space researchers and health care innovators.
At first glance, the inaugural trio of commercial spaceflights may appear to be little more than a new playground for the elite. But a deeper look reveals it to be the beginning of a new era of space health research that will benefit all humans exploring space as well as those who stare up at it in wonder.
Asha Collins is a biologist and the general manager of biobanks at DNAnexus. Lisa Suennen is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and the senior managing director of Manatt Digital and Technology. Armen Kherlopian is a biophysicist and founding partner of BAJ Accelerator. They are members of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health.
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