Though you can read about the many benefits originating from International Space Station research and technology, in NASA’s new video feature “Benefits for Humanity: In Their Own Words,” it is now easy to see those benefits as well. The space station provides a microgravity environment for researchers to conduct multidisciplinary investigations, for educators to inspire next generation scientists and engineers, and to serve as a stepping stone to future exploration that was not possible just 15 years ago.
Considered one of the greatest technological, geopolitical and engineering achievements in history, the space station is a collaborative effort between 16 nations. More than 69 countries have participated in research and educational activities on the orbiting laboratory that advances our fundamental scientific knowledge, supports the exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit and provides a multitude of benefits to humans on Earth. A few examples of the benefits provided by research performed on the space station are highlighted in “Benefits for Humanity: In Their Own Words,” including: neurosurgical medical technology in Canada; water purification technology in rural Mexico; agricultural monitoring in the northern Great Plains of the United States; student amateur radio interaction with the space station in the Midwest United States; and, remote telemedicine in rural Brazil.
Making waves in neurosurgery, the neuroArm was adapted from the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadarm, Canadarm2 and the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre). These robots helped to build and maintain the space station and provide heavy-lifting and spacecraft berthing capabilities. The first patient to benefit from the neuroArm technology, Paige Nickason, has neurofribromatosis, a medical condition that caused a complex tumor to grow underneath the front part of her brain. This condition gave her intense pain and nearly confined her to bed rest full-time.
Dr. Garnette Sutherland, a neurosurgeon and professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, approached space robot engineers and scientists at MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, Ltd., with an idea to bring the technology of space down to Earth. “If they could build complex robots, perhaps in collaboration with medicine, we could build a robot that could operate inside an MRI machine,” explained Sutherland. The result was neuroArm, an instrument that operates inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine to show detailed brain images while operating on the brain with the precision and accuracy of a neurosurgeon.
According to Sutherland, neuroArm operates at a level of precision “that is overwhelmingly superior to what the best surgeon may be able to do.” A grateful, healthy Nickason remarked, “I’m glad that it helped people who have my disease, and I hope it helps people who need surgery in the future.”
Saving lives does not have to be as complex as robotic surgery, but can be as simple as providing the life-giving source of clean water. This specifically is of utmost importance to a community in rural Mexico, showing the far-reaching benefits of the water purification component of NASA’s Environmental and Life Control Support System (ECLSS). ECLSS provides clean water for drinking, cooking and hygiene aboard the space station. This technology has been adapted on Earth to aid remote locations or places devastated by natural disaster that do not have access to clean drinking water.
In Chiapas, Mexico, many people are at risk of illness from drinking contaminated water from wells, rivers or springs not treated by municipal water systems. Children in Chiapas, previously sickened by parasites and stomach bugs, now have access during school to clean, safe drinking water. This is due to the installation of the ECLSS-derived water purification plant. Renewable solar energy powers the water treatment technology for the community in Chiapas. Results include improved overall health and cost-savings from not having to buy purified water or medication to treat water-borne illnesses.
“If we could put one of these plants in every community and have people use it, it would resolve one of the most important sources of health problems, at least in the rural areas of Mexico,” said Eduardo Ballinas, president of Sinergia Sistemas, the organization that provides safe drinking water in Chiapas.
Benefits of space station research stretch from a small town in Mexico to the wide open spaces of farmland in Crookston, Minn. There, A.W.G. Farms Inc. is leveraging images from the International Space Station Agricultural Camera (ISSAC) to grow sugar beets, spring wheat, sunflowers and soybeans. The Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium, led by the University of North Dakota, operates ISSAC from Earth to help farmers like Gary Wagner monitor crop growth for disease or fertility differences.
ISSAC, unaffected by cloud cover, captures frequent images of the Earth in visible and infrared light, which are necessary for relaying information on biomass. Biomass images provide data on crop growth, and more biomass means more crop yield potential. Delivering these images to farmers more rapidly than previous remote sensing technology, Wagner called ISSAC a “tool we can use as a reference to be able to make better decisions and by doing that, our farm is more profitable, and that to me is very important.”
Images are not the only space-to-ground communications happening between the orbiting station and people on Earth. Calling up the space station and talking to the astronauts living and working there can be a life-changing event for a young student. Austin Walker grew up in Rantoul, Ill., a rural setting with limited support for science and technology educational activities. Participating in Space Jam, a technology-oriented gathering for Boy and Girl Scouts, Walker discovered NASA’s Amateur Radio International Space Station (ARISS) capability and was inspired to pursue a career in science and technology after speaking directly to the space station.
ARISS provides the opportunity for teachers, students, and the general public to interact with the space station through the use of amateur radio. This direct communication can motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “This is amazing,” exclaimed Walker about his first Space Jam experience of establishing contact with the space station. His experience sparked an enthusiasm for the sciences. Walker has since graduated from Princeton University and is now a software engineer in San Francisco.
Students are not the only people inspired by space station interactions. Space station technology also led to a doctor/researcher collaboration spinoff in the area of remote telemedicine. Use of this capability in the large state of Minas Gerais in Brazil is saving lives of those in very isolated communities. Ultrasound technology adapted from the space station helps with prenatal care and diagnostic capacity where patients and doctors are separated by a great distance.
Just as on Earth as in space, trained medical personnel are not always immediately available. NASA’s Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM) investigation trained astronauts and cosmonauts to use an ultrasound unit and transmit images in real time back to Earth. These images could then be sent to physicians to make medical decisions without actually being with the crew member. This technology can provide more detail during examination of a patient in a remote area and help in administering first aid, where quick decisions are necessary.
In the small, extremely isolated town of Manga in Minas Gerais, many people rely on this ultrasound technology to help solve medical problems due to lack of access to other types of care. Joaquim de Diniz, a Manga physician, related the story of a female patient who had a mere 20 to 30 minutes to live due to severe respiratory failure. Using the remote ultrasound equipment, he and his team of medical professionals were able to determine the problem and treat a large amount of fluid around the patient’s heart and lungs. The patient quickly recovered. “It was like a miracle,” said de Diniz. “She was dying in front of us, without people knowing what was happening. This ultrasound was instrumental in saving the life of that patient.”
These are but a few of the many examples of the impact of space station research on the lives of the people on Earth. With its 15-year anniversary in 2013 and continued operations until at least 2020, and likely beyond, there are many more benefits to look forward to from space station research. The space station has the potential to improve and change lives on Earth with each investigation and technology test that takes place in orbit. With collaboration from the original international partnerships to the insights of inventors and integrators of the research and technology on the ground, we can anticipate continued space station benefits for humanity.