What happens when you start with a colored-coded keyboard, add in some remote communication technology, and throw in a beating heart that is 240 miles above the Earth? An innovative way to conduct an ultrasound from space!
Enter David Martin, senior scientist and Ultrasound Lead at the NASA Johnson Space Center Cardiovascular Laboratory in Houston, Texas.
At this lab, Martin and his colleagues are tasked with investigating the effects of microgravity on the cardiovascular system. Ultrasound technology is just one of an array of other clinical tools being used to study the cardiovascular system in space.
On any given day, you can find Martin assisting astronauts in performing cardiac ultrasound imaging in preparation for their next mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
As Martin explained, "It’s kind of tough to train somebody in ultrasound if it’s not their job. So, as an experiment, [we give] a few introductory lessons to the crewmembers; and then in-flight, I just talk them through it."
So from Earth, Martin remotely guides the astronauts through an ultrasound imaging procedure onboard the ISS, which can actually prove to be quite a challenge.
"[There’s] a little hair-pulling, often times at 3 or 4 in the morning,” said Martin. "You have to go in [Mission Control] and just take it from scratch. Put the probe here. Tilt it a little bit this way. Rotate it a little bit that way. Slide a little bit this way. Hit this control and that control."
But in the end, they get the data.
"It’s tough, but also rewarding," Martin added.
A new laptop-sized unit, the Ultrasound 2, was launched on the STS-135 shuttle mission in July 2011. It has technology similar to what you might see on Earth.
"It has probes that can be used for a very wide range of applications. So it’s not just a cardiac system. [Astronauts] use it for…abdominal, eye, muscle, etc.,” said Martin. "The regular commercial unit has a white overlay on it, with the names for the controls that don’t really make a whole lot of sense to non-sonographers."
He continued, “So I thought, ‘What the heck, let’s just color it up and make it easy.’ So rather than having to tell somebody, ‘Go up to the upper left’, you say ’purple one, left key’ or ’blue two, down two clicks.’ That just makes finding the controls for someone not familiar with the system almost instant.
And ease of use is a definite advantage to ultrasound imaging in space.
David Martin never imagined he would work at NASA. Little did he know there were professional research laboratories at NASA centers across the United States and on the International Space Station (ISS)—a research laboratory which orbits the Earth from miles above.
Martin took his interest for medical research into the field of ultrasound technology.
"Back when I started,” Martin explained, “ultrasound was a fairly new modality (medical procedure). There weren’t that many people doing it. I just kind of came across [ultrasound] through researching on my own.
Martin said it was the “creative aspect” that drew him into ultrasound over the other diagnostic imaging fields.
"Ultrasound relies on the person performing the imaging; they have to know what they are looking at, and how to maneuver the equipment to get that precise image,” he said. “With x-ray, you line them up and take a picture. But with ultrasound, you have to fish around… it’s like the thrill of the hunt.” A trained ultrasound technologist will use their skill and knowledge of the human body to get a clean, usable image.
It’s that creativity, that ability to think visually, that inspires Martin to come to work everyday.
"I like it because I have to think. It’s challenging, and I do a number of different things. It keeps [my job] fresh. I’m not grinding out the same thing everyday."
But when asked what Martin likes most about his job at NASA, he smiles. “I like to think, in some way, I’m contributing to an overall goal of exploration."
He had some advice for anyone who might be seeking a career in ultrasound diagnostic imaging.
"I would encourage them for the same reasoning that I used in making my own decision. It’s somewhat creative. There’s room to grow, and you can specialize in different areas."
As for the use of ultrasound on ISS, Martin concluded, "One important point is that there is no other diagnostic imaging equipment on station (the ISS)…you can’t go get a CT (computed tomography, or CAT scan) or x-ray, so you have to figure out how you can use ultrasound."
It’s part of the challenge of working with medical research in microgravity. Using ultrasound and other clinical tools, NASA continues to explore new human physiology and use innovative techniques to find, diagnose, and one day, medically treat astronauts in space.