To the moon: NASA continues legacy of impact on telemedicine
As NASA prepares to launch Artemis I and lay the groundwork for reestablishing a human presence on the Moon, the longtime role that space missions have played in advancing telemedicine on Earth is also returning to focus.
Though the roots of remote consultations predate space exploration, with radio communication helping clinicians transfer medical information in remote areas of Alaska and Australia as early as the 1930s, telemedicine as it’s practiced today emerged as NASA made plans to send astronauts into space.
As part of the agency’s first human missions into orbit, NASA engineers developed remote monitoring devices within spacesuits to check vital signs, along with telecommunications systems in spacecrafts to relay this information back to Earth. (Similar technology, minus the spacesuits, helped physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital provide medical care to patients at Boston’s Logan International Airport through two-way audio-video links beginning in the late 1960s.)
Since then, NASA’s contributions to telemedicine and remote monitoring have included handheld diagnostic devices, masks measuring metabolic functions, and stethoscopes capable of detecting heart and lung problems typically found with a CT scan or echocardiogram. Here, the emphasis is clear: Portable medical devices that pack a lot of functionality in a small package.
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More recently, NASA and its partner agencies have used the International Space Station (ISS) as a testing ground for cutting-edge telemedicine. ISS works well because it lets the space agencies push remote monitoring to its limits and because the conditions in space – such as isolation, exposure to radiation, sedentary behavior, and exposure to pathogens – mimic those on Earth but in a controlled environment.
The Canadian Space Agency’s work has included surgical robots, which were further honed on Earth to perform brain surgeries inside an MRI machine, as well as “smart shirts” that measure vital signs and transmit data to computers many miles away. In addition, the technology behind the agency’s antigravity suits has been used to effectively treat mothers with postpartum hemorrhage.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is remotely monitoring eye health, with AI models analyzing images sent from ISS. Optic nerve damage is common when astronauts are in low gravity for more than 30 days, and the agency said addressing the condition will be critical for longer explorations – such as missions to Mars. AI models will help provide decision and diagnostic support as they mature.
In the lead-up to the Artemis launch, NASA has been testing portable ultrasound, which is less bulky than the typical ultrasound machine and uses a single, universal probe. When paired with a portable computing device and training programs, users without formal medical training can perform exams. Similar technology has been used on Earth in places ranging from remote villages to ski mountains where the nearest physician may be hours away.