We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Fifty years ago, President Kennedy challenged us to go beyond our known capacity into the unknown – to go to the moon and back. He and others envisioned a grand endeavor, filled with possibilities. Kennedy actually gave us this quote at Rice University in September 1962, but this year marks the golden anniversary of his declaration that we must focus our efforts on an unimaginable goal. And we achieved this and more.
What then does space exploration, landing on the moon, shuttle missions and an international space station have to do with health? No one could imagine all those decades ago the impact these pursuits would have on health.
Back during the early manned space flights of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, we looked to test the limits of the human body. Though WWII brought many advancements on the medical aspects of high-speed, high-altitude airplane flight, there remained many unknowns. How would the human body respond to g-forces and isolation? How could we bring air, food, clean water into space? Would hearts stop or brains malfunction?
Early Space Medicine – The Right Stuff:
Medicine was at the heart of the space program from the beginning as the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) sought men with “The Right Stuff” to fly into the new frontier. They needed to test the body’s limits. They needed to find the strongest and brightest in our nation who’s physical and psychological bounds would be stretched to the extreme. NASA screened a total of 508 service records in 1959, of which 110 men were found to meet NASA’s minimum standards, including 47 Navy men and 58 Air Force pilots. The field narrowed after extensive testing. Candidates underwent many medical evaluations including lab tests measuring their hearts and blood, x-rays to map their bodies, tests on eyes, ears, noses and throats. They were tested on bicycle ergometer tests, total-body radiation, physical endurance tests, and psychiatric evaluations. They tested pressure suits, and were subjected to acceleration tests, vibration tests, heat tests, loud noise tests and then proving physical endurance on treadmills, tilt tables, putting their feet in ice water and blowing up balloons until exhausted. (See the movie)
Finally, seven were picked for the Mercury Program – Malcolm Carpenter, Gordo Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. These men were healthier physically and psychologically than most anyone in the world, but short in stature (those capsules were small). The tests, the training process, and the actual first manned spaceflights themselves all provided a wealth of information about space medicine, the body’s limitations, and the technologies needed to support each astronaut from take-off through landing.
Contributions to Health:
In the years since, the space missions have provided invaluable contributions to medicine:
- Studying microgravity led to the development of a physical therapy and athletic development machine used by football teams, sports clinics and medical rehabilitation centers.
- A NASA developed chemical process was responsible for the development of kidney dialysis machines.
- The need to find imperfections in aerospace structures and components, such as castings, rocket motors and nozzles led to the development of a medical CAT scanner which searches the human body for tumors or other abnormalities.
- Water purification technology used on the Apollo spacecraft is now employed in several spinoff applications to kill bacteria, viruses and algae in community water supply systems and cooling towers. Filters mounted on faucets can reduce lead in water supplies.
- Digital signal-processing techniques, originally developed to enhance pictures of the Moon for the Apollo Program, are an indispensable part of Computer-Aided Tomography (CAT) scan & Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technologies used today worldwide.
- A hollow retroreflector, a mirror-like instrument that reflects light & other radiation back to the source, is used as a sensor to detect the presence of hazardous gases in oil development, chemical plants, waste storage sites & locations where gases could be released into the environment.
- The cyclotron at NASA’s center in Cleveland, Ohio—which had been utilized for testing nuclear propulsion systems for air and space craft—was used in the first clinical trials for the treatment and evaluation of neutron radiation therapy for cancer patients.
- NASA’s lightweight metal material developed for aircraft and spacecraft led to foldable walkers that are portable and easy to manage.
- Telemetry technology developed at NASA led to personal alert systems, devices that can be worn by individuals who may require emergency medical or safety assistance.
- NASA developed muscle stimulator device which is now used to prevent muscle atrophy in paralyzed individuals. It provides electrical stimulation to muscles which is equal to jogging three miles per week. Christopher Reeve used these in his therapy.
- Special foam used for cushioning astronauts during liftoff is used in pillows and mattresses at many nursing homes and hospitals to help prevent ulcers, relieve pressure, and provide a better night’s sleep.
- Surgically implantable heart pacemakers depend on technologies developed by NASA for use with satellites.
There were innumerable contributions to the fileds of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and so on. These different disciplines merge and overlap, affording us with incredible understanding of the human body and mind, how we interact with our enviornments, and how we can manipulate the resources we have to accomplish amazing feats.
And of course, the advancement in computers as NASA grew from its rudimentary beginnings changed the world of technology and all else. Without these advances, we would never talk about health information technology, tele-medicine, and the ability to connect the world with health care providers and new solutions to ensure our right to health.
Current Space Medicine and Research:
Today, NASA’s Human Research Program address challenges like providing appetizing food that will support astronauts nutritionally, investigating radiation and lunar dust exposure, and ensuring muscles do not atrophy while on space missions. NASA’s studies of physiology, include researching bone health, muscle function, cardiovascular responses, sensorimotor issues, immunology, and mental health. They also study environments, researching human factors, lunar dust, microbiology and radiation in conjunction with the human body’s adaptations to different environmental rigors. And the administration researches technologies to make space flight and future exploration safe and productive.
The magnificent site of a space shuttle taking off is unforgettable. These gigantic aircraft have carried many experiments into space investigating all sorts of health topics. There have been experiments to study cancer genes, proteins in microgravity, Cell Biotechnology Operations Support Systems Fluid Dynamics Investigation used to grow three-dimensional tissue that retains the form and function of natural living tissue, latent viruses, and many more.
On board the International Space Station a large array of different experiments are underway within a wide range of disciplines. To learn more about these experiments – go here.
This New Sea and Beyond:
Along the way, we’ve lost many extraordinary individuals to these pursuits. We lost many in the early days of the space race including the crew of Apollo 1. We remember vividly the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the loss of all 7 crewmembers just after launch. We recall those lost on the Columbia space shuttle in 2003. Yet we continue their memory and pay tribute to their contributions by forging ahead with the space program, learning new things, reaching new heights.
The task Kennedy set before us 50 years ago did not end when we landed on the moon. Beyond the moon, our dreams remain to expand even farther beyond our current capabilities. Our endeavors further contribute to many areas of our lives, including our health. Space exploration and the pursuit of the unimaginable continue to inspire us to learn, to seek, to reach for the stars. “Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. – John F. Kennedy