From blast off to spin off

Space sciences revolutionize clinical practices and techniques

by Chloe Nevitt

During the development of the Apollo program in the 1960s, space enthusiast Lorne Trottier was getting his B.Sc. at McGill University. Every week, he would go to Schulich Library to check out the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology to get updates regarding the moon landing. Finally, NASA did it—they had successfully sent a man to the moon. Ever since this landing, space science has dramatically evolved, and the technologies themselves increasingly serve a dual purpose. Not only is space science making leaps within the realms of zero gravity, it is also improving the lives of humankind back on earth.

In his novel An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield describes that thinking like an astronaut is a matter of changing your perspective. Just as astronauts’ perspectives on the boundaries of space science are changing, today’s inventors are also broadening their views to apply space science in developing everyday technology.

In the 1960s, Eugene Lally, an engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), investigated techniques to develop small, lightweight image sensors to take photos of space. Thirty years later, another team from JPL, led by Eric Fossum, looked to improve these image sensors, creating a device known as a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor image sensor (CMOS). This technology was cost-effective, maintained image quality, and was easy to build. Recognizing the capacity for these sensors to be employed within an everyday framework, the company Photobit made minor modifications to the sensors, which are now used in one in three cellphone cameras worldwide.

“You can’t predict what the payoff will be,” stated Elizabeth Howell, senior writer at Universe Today. “When they first invented laser [sensors,] they didn’t expect CDs or faster computers.”

But the implications of such technologies are far beyond the entertainment industry. Some technologies originally developed for space have made substantial contributions to the medical field.

In 1969, Canada was invited by NASA to participate in the space shuttle program. Their duty was to develop a Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS), which was used to deploy, maneuver, and capture the part of the rocket known as the payload. A partner of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) known as SPAR Aeronautics, developed a SRMS called the Canadarm which was used for 40 years. When the Canadarm retired, its legacy lived on.

“These SPAR arms [have since been developed] to become medical arms,” Howell explained. “In five years, things like image-guided autonomous robots (IGARs) [will be] searching for breast cancers [within the body].”

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The Centre for Surgical Invention and Innovation in Hamilton, Ontario is designing these mechanical IGAR arms to detect and treat early stages of breast cancer. Dr. Nathalie Duchesne, a breast radiologist from Quebec City, is currently helping perform the first clinical trials for IGAR, which is projected to be released in the next four years.

The realization that technology could be applied across fields spurred the development of NASA’s Technology Transfer program, which focuses on commercializing NASA technologies. The end-of-year reports for these products, published yearly by NASA since 1976, provide a quantifiable way to show the general public the impact of space technology on earth.

“The early 1960s was when the tech transfer program was created,” said Daniel Lockney, NASA Technology Transfer program executive. “We would report back to the government […] and everyone thought, ‘This is such cool stuff, keep it coming.’”

In addition to its functions in space, the NASA Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM) can provide medical care for people living in remote communities. This tool avoids the need for expensive machinery, and can be brought to places where cumbersome equipment poses challenges, due to costs and transportation limitations. The ADUM can see whether or not a lung has been punctured or a bone has been broken. Being able to make both an early and accurate diagnosis significantly improves the outcome for a patient.

“You can’t take an x-ray machine into space because they’re heavy and [require] a lot of power,” Lockney said. “So we developed a light-weight, low-power, rugged ultra-sound machine […] that can be used [as a] diagnostic [tool].”

This ability to detect a sprained or broken wrist has been increasingly used by athletic trainers. The ADUM allows coaches and trainers to accurately determine the severity of an injury and better assess the situation to make smarter and safer decisions for their players.

“[The ADUM] can be used in sports games, where trainers can [decide] to [let] a player back in,” Lockney said. “It was used for the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Lions. It proved successful and now these are being used all over the country.”

Space research has also benefited the scope of medical knowledge. By examining astronauts, scientists and doctors are able to analyze the medical anomalies caused by living in space and connecting them to problems people have on earth.

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Richard Hughson from the University of Waterloo has been studying the effects of aging by comparing seniors to astronauts.

“Astronauts come back weaker, [they have] blood pressure problems, [and their] balance is off,” Howell said. “[Hughson] has access to astronauts from the International Space Station, and he’s looking at seniors that just got out of bed in the morning and comparing them to astronauts like Chris Hadfield.”

By comparing these two demographics, Hughson has been able to provide insight on mechanisms in the elderly that are affecting their blood flow, which cause them to faint and fall. For the astronauts, it’s the effects of microgravity in space—a condition where all people and objects appear to be weightless—that have a number of detrimental affects on the body.

“There’s bone decalcification [and] atrophy in the bone structure,” said Jack James, the Technology Transfer Office chief from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Our Human Health and Performance Group […] looks at the risks, identifies which are real and what’s [their] magnitude, and [then] how to [create] countermeasures to address [them].”

A lot of these technological advances have occurred due to the work of pioneers in developing surgical techniques from NASA technologies such as Michael Debakey.

Debakey was a world-renowned heart surgeon who invented heart and lung bypass machines developed from the same efficient pump design used by NASA rockets. While rocket pumps transfer tons of fuel and a heart pump transfers only litres, they have a similar application. More researchers that think like Debakey are necessary to evolve these inventions for other purposes, explained James.

“We developed an implantable heart device based on microfluid [rocket fuel] flow,” Lockney said. “We took that knowledge and worked with Michael Debakey to develop a ‘heartplant,’ which is a bridge between [an implant and] a heart transplant.’”

However, the scope of NASA’s work isn’t limited to physical health; space research also contributes to mental health studies that are used to evaluate the effects of isolation on the mind.

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“Some of the people who helped the miners who were trapped down in Chile [in 2010] were people from our lab,” James said. “[Based on their experiences in space,] they can tell you what to worry about for people who are confined and isolated for a long time.”

The effects of isolation are important to consider for longer space expeditions, such as a trip to Mars, which James says could take three to five years. It’s essential for both mental health and further space studies to understand how people will react to solitude.

Beyond contributing to the medical field, the space program provides insight to the development of life on earth.

“We’re getting a deeper understanding of ourselves and how we got here,” Trottier said. “I’m very excited by it.”

The technology developed to find life—and answer our own questions about life—forms a critical tool to better understand the origins of the universe.

“[Telescopes] are being built—next generation space technology—and there’s a good chance they can find another Earth and evidence for something with life on it,” Trottier said.

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Professor René Doyon from Université de Montréal is developing one of the four main instruments on the James Webb Space Telescope: The Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec).

“Using IR technology [the telescope] will be capable of detecting the atmospheres of planets.” explained Doyon. “The telescope will be launched in 2018, so hopefully [by then] we’ll be capable of detecting the [solar] systems [we want to study].”

The telescope measures atmospheres of exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—to determine whether planets exist with water or oxygen in their atmospheres.

By examining the origins and presence of life on other planets, astronauts will be able to get a deeper and better understanding of our own.

“Astronomy is the ultimate way of doing exploration [...] finding life outside the solar system and finding the nature of the universe will put us in a much broader perspective,” Doyon said.

The depth of NASA’s contributions to space and modern technology are extensive. And, while NASA has sometimes been incorrectly credited with bringing inventions like MRIs to the public, perhaps the biggest contribution from space technologies has been the breaking down of barriers.

Over the last thirteen years, Doyon’s fondest memories working on the telescope are from working with other people. Translational research, he explains, is essential in tackling large projects.

“You [...] bring together the best talents in many fields,” Doyon said. “You need engineering, you need experts in management, you need scientists to analyze, [but] more than anything else, we need lots of students.”