Space travel calls for a lot of creative solutions and space agencies invest a ton in developing technology that’s the best of the best. But astronauts aren’t the only beneficiaries. Space technology is all over, in unexpected places like memory foam mattresses and those cool clear braces for straightening teeth. Space science gets applied in all sorts of ways that were never intended, like making us healthier here on Earth.
Earlier this year, for example, NASA just happened to develop the perfect material for some really high-tech stitches while doing research for Mars. It all started because researchers were trying to figure out how to bring back a sample from the Red Planet. We have never done that before and that’s because it’s kind of tricky.
Drilling gets messy and any dust that gets on the seal of a container could keep it from closing all the way. That’s a big problem because scientists needed to be 100% positive that Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t contaminate the sample on its way in. That means they needed a really strong seal. They wanted this thing to close so tightly that they could measure the amount of leakage on the scale of molecules.
The idea was to use what’s called a knife edge seal, where a sharp edge literally cuts into a softer metal edge, but if the knife part wasn’t clean, the seal still wouldn’t be perfect. So, engineers set out to make an extra layer that would wipe the knife edge clean on its way toward the softer metal, which would strengthen the seal. The only appropriate material that was space-friendly and wouldn’t contaminate the sample seemed to be Teflon.
Fortunately, that nonstick coating on your pans is just one of Teflon’s many forms. It starts as a powder that can have different properties depending on how it’s processed. In this case, engineers processed it under high pressure to make a soft, flexible and strong ribbon. And it worked great. But that wasn’t all. In addition to being delicate and strong, these ribbons of Teflon are also compatible with the human body. That means they can be implanted without the immune system attacking them. For procedures like heart surgeries where it’s kind of inconvenient to cut a person back open just to take stitches out, these could be a gamechanger.
As it happens, these fancy stitches are not NASA’s first contribution to heart health. In the mid-80s, a NASA scientist struck up a collaboration with his former heart surgeon and the two built a heart pump inspired by the fuel pumps for rocket engines. They wanted to create a pump that would help people whose hearts didn’t circulate blood properly, especially because many of them were dying while they waited for a transplant.
This unusual pair thought they might have a solution. So they pulled together a team. The researchers took NASA supercomputers, which were designed to model the flow of fuel through rocket engines and used them to model the flow of blood through the heart. They then used that data to build a heart pump.
It wasn’t perfect, but after about a decade of work, they came up with a design that would do the least possible damage to passing blood cells. It also got rid of stagnant areas where clots could form. But most importantly, it was about 1/10th the size of other heart valves at the time. That made the device much less invasive, and it also meant it could be implanted in kids.
In 2004, after two decades of research, the FDA approved the life-saving device for small children. In case exploring the universe and saving heart patients weren’t enough, NASA technology is also helping cure cancer.
Recently, NASA developed an image-analysis software that could look at cancer in 3D. The technology started with a completely different health problem that was affecting astronauts. After being in space for months, people begin to have vision problems. Scientists thought that this might stem from blood flowing differently in microgravity. But they wanted to be sure.
Some researchers had the chance to study tissue samples from mice in space and they thought to examine the blood vessels in these samples might help them get to the bottom of what’s going on. But it was hard for them to do the analysis manually. They were trying to do things like count blood vessels and determine their shapes, but different people were getting drastically different results, because, well, humans don’t have perfectly consistent judgment. So the team needed something more reliable.
They turned to a company that specializes in image-analysis software. The company came up with an algorithm that could spot blood vessels within tissue samples and collect some important details. The end result was much more reliable than a human. Though, doctors still haven’t fully solved the mystery of space-induced vision problems.
Luckily, this same software is probably going to be useful for diagnosing and monitoring lots of medical conditions, like cancer for instance. It can pick out subtle differences in the shape of tumours, which can help oncologists tell whether or not they’re likely to be benign. It can also look at tumours in 3D and pick up on growth or shrinking that might not show up in standard 2D CAT scans. The technology is still new, but already, it shows a lot of promise for keeping humans healthy in space and on Earth.
These are just a few of the life-saving inventions that are twists on technology from space. Each year, space programs inspire inventions that are perfectly at home here on Earth. And that’s because, while these programs have the tools and inspiration to produce these amazing technologies, in the end, space research is not just for people in space it’s for all of us.