Space medicine: How innovations made for astronauts benefit every patient on Earth

6 May 2024
Digital Health

Scientific research accompanying space missions generates many innovations for medicine. Examples include telemedicine, diagnostic imaging, and pandemic monitoring systems. What inventions safeguard health when a hospital is hundreds of kilometers away, and how do novel technologies developed for exploring the universe support patients on Earth?

Patient in space, doctor on Earth

Astronauts in space experience health challenges similar to those on Earth, along with additional risks due to the lack of gravity: muscle atrophy, bone weakness, or cardiac disease. Although a doctor accompanies every space mission, their options are limited. The primary challenge is space itself. On the International Space Station (ISS), 400-500 kilometers from Earth, every spare inch counts, making it impossible to carry extensive medical equipment. Therefore, arranging an unscheduled return to Earth for hospitalization can take several months—this is why individuals qualified for extraterrestrial missions must enjoy perfect health.

"The astronauts take it very seriously and do a lot of work to prepare physically before a mission. They also follow training protocols, exercising for a minimum of two hours a day on board," according to Sergi Vaquer, prime European Space Agency (ESA) flight surgeon. However, health is not something that can be entirely controllable.

Scientists have long been working on solutions to provide medical assistance at a distance. Telemedicine on the ISS is standard, allowing an internal medicine doctor to consult specialists on Earth. In February 2024, another breakthrough in space medicine occurred—the first simulation of surgery using a miniature surgical robot was performed on the ISS. This project is part of the Artemis program's medical research. The U.S. Space Agency NASA plans to land on the Moon again in 2026 to build a base for possible further exploration of Mars.

The surgery robot, named SpaceMIRA, weighs just 0.9 kg. Despite a signal transmission delay between the ISS and Earth, the medical team can control its movements. While surgeons have conducted a simple test involving the precise cutting of a rubber band, this marks a significant step toward Earth-controlled space operations. Scientists hope to operate on an astronaut's appendix using this technology, significantly improving mission safety.

In space, you can't order a missing surgical tool or prosthesis. That's where 3D bioprinters capable of creating bone structures come into play. Scientists are also working on bioprinting skin, among other advancements.

Spinoff space inventions enter the commercial market

In addition to standard diseases existing on Earth, cosmonauts face health risks associated with zero gravity: bones lose density, and muscles atrophy. Therefore, they must exercise a minimum of two hours a day. Anti-gravity treadmills draw inspiration from fitness programs developed for astronauts to help manage the effects of reduced gravity on the body.

Space also facilitates the studies of bone atrophy and the development of new therapies for osteoporosis. In addition to gravity deficiency, radiation in space can damage DNA, increasing cancer risks. Scientists are working on drugs to mitigate radiation's harmful effects. One success story is light technology that reduces chemotherapy side effects in cancer patients.

Telemedicine services in space rely on satellite communications since there is no internet. Some devices developed for the ISS, such as Tempus Pro, are now used in aircraft or war zones. Tempus Pro is a portable vital signs monitor and telemedicine device initially developed for the European Space Agency (ESA) to monitor astronauts' health in space. It collects and transmits medical data, allowing for remote medical consultations with experts on Earth.

ESA is pioneering medical innovations, including compact diagnostic systems for analyzing health parameters based on small blood samples and teleradiology devices for astronaut self-service. Inventions in this field may contribute to the further development of telemedicine.

It's worth mentioning that medical imaging, commonly used in hospitals, originates in image processing technology developed by NASA to improve moon images. The LVAD, a left ventricular assist device invented in 1995, was inspired by the space shuttle's fuel pump. NASA regularly publishes a list of similar innovations turned into commercial products. NASA's 2024 Spinoff report showcases over 40 medical and other commercial technologies derived from the agency's research and development capabilities. Among the most exciting examples are an FDA-cleared wireless arthroscopic camera, a medical-grade smartwatch, and simulation, prediction, and response software.

Big Brother for health

Another group of medical innovations stems from data collected from space by the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and precise Earth images. This data aids in better understanding climate change, monitoring infectious diseases, and creating epidemiological maps.

Space-derived images illustrated the effects of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Galileo navigation system, available on over 2 billion smartphones, improved COVID-19 applications by tracking infection chains and warning of contact with infected individuals. Aggregated data has become a valuable information source, helping public health organizations map infections and plan actions to limit virus spread during past outbreaks like Ebola in Africa.

Space agencies are launching much more promising research initiatives at the intersection of medicine and new technologies. This is crucial as space exploration plans are ambitious and crewed missions are becoming longer. NASA, ESA, and other agencies aim to create spacecraft ready for voyages lasting several decades or even generations (so-called interstellar missions beyond the solar system). Achieving this goal requires miniaturizing the entire life ecosystem, including hospitals. In 2021, ESA, the British Space Agency, and the NHS health system initiated the Hospital of the Future project to prepare for such missions.

Space exploration is an expensive endeavor. It is estimated that ISS maintenance alone costs about $3-4 billion annually. NASA's budget for 2025 is $25.4 billion. Fortunately, this money is also spent on innovations to better protect climate and the health of people on Earth.