Many people ask why NASA gets so much funding. They’ll often say that the money invested there could be spent on other endeavors down here on Earth, and that spending money on going to space is a waste. What most of us don’t realize is how much the research done by NASA has helped us in so many different ways. Below are ten ways NASA technology has revolutionized healthcare that will hopefully shine light on their relevance.
10. Laser Angioplasties
An angioplasty is when a blood vessel, in particular a coronary artery, is unblocked. It can be a very delicate and risky operation, but developments at NASA have helped to make the procedure considerably less invasive and safer. Previous methods, such as a coronary bypass, required open heart surgery to implant a healthy blood vessel from another part of the body to direct the blood flow around the blockage.
The laser angioplasty, on the other hand, threads a small cable into the artery and emits a cool laser that breaks down the plaque. This method is safer, with an 85% success rate, less painful, less risky, and does not require surgery. The laser itself uses ultraviolet light and is 65 degrees Celsius (149 Fahrenheit), which is enough to unblock the artery without damaging the human tissue. The laser was originally developed to study the ozone layer.
People who survive a case of sudden cardiac arrest have a 55% chance of suffering a heart attack in the following two years. Thanks to NASA’s advancements in technology, that risk can be lowered to less than 3% with the implantation of a pacemaker.
Pacemakers are designed to release electric impulses to counteract arrhythmia, which is irregular beating of the heart. NASA worked alongside researchers in Baltimore to develop an implant that could collect information on a patients heartbeat, detect arrhythmia early, counteract it, and be reprogrammed remotely, eliminating the need for surgery every time it needed to be changed. A lot of different NASA technology went into the development of the pacemaker, such as the technology used for remote communication with satellites.
8. Blood Analyzers
Many technological advancements that NASA has made in healthcare are technologies that were developed for other reasons, and then applied to healthcare. But they also set out to specifically advance certain tests and treatments. You never know what will happen to the astronauts when they’re in space, no matter how healthy they are, so it’s best to be prepared.
This is why the Portable Clinical Blood Analyzer was developed. With just 65 microliters (about three drops) of blood, it gives readings on acidity/alkalinity, carbon dioxide, bicarbonate, sodium, potassium, chloride, and glucose levels in just two minutes. Its small size, versatility and speed are of huge importance and immeasurably helpful towards the health of astronauts, but it could also be extremely useful in other areas, like long commercial flights, submarines, battlefields and even hospitals. It is already capable of replacing methods that require multiple, large machines and vials of blood, as well as giving instant results. It’s hoped that they can be developed to deliver information on a wider range of results, and also advance to require only a single drop of blood (because three drops is too cumbersome, apparently.)
7. The Scanadu Scout
Often referred to as a real-life Star Trek Tricorder, the Scanadu Scout is a handheld device, small enough to be completely sealed in your closed hand. Developed by the NASA Ames Research Center, it allows people to measure some of their own vital signs at home. By simply holding it against your temple for 10 seconds, the Scanadu Scout will measure your temperature, hemoglobin levels, and heart rate with 99% accuracy. It then sends the data to an app on your smartphone. This allows you to keep track of your vitals, and either build up a pattern over time, or just warn you that something is wrong.
Unveiled earlier this year, it could be of great use in hospitals, where it could give more results, faster and more accurately than current methods. However, it is primarily marketed for people to keep in the home, where it could prove extremely helpful for those with preexisting medical conditions, letting them know when they need or need not worry.
6. Human Tissue Stimulators
Developed by the same people who worked on the pacemaker, and using similar technology, the Human Tissue Stimulator is a device that is implanted in either the brain or nerve centers in the body. Like the pacemaker, the device uses electrical stimulation to stabilize signals given off by the brain or in the nervous system. This allows it to reduce or stop chronic pain, as well as involuntary muscle spasms.
The device is small, and uses a nickel cadmium batter that can be recharged through the skin. Like the pacemaker, it also collects and relays information, and can be reprogrammed remotely. Similar devices have been used to treat Parkinson’s Disease.
5. Breast Cancer Research
Breast cancer probably gets more attention than any other type of cancer these days, and for good reasons. It is the most common cancer among (but not exclusive to) women. A lot is still unknown about it, and in 70% of breast cancer cases, doctors can’t tell what the cause is. This makes both prevention and treatment harder, meaning that the only real way to help people at the moment is for them to go in for random check ups, and hope to catch it early.
Meanwhile, NASA is helping to fight breast cancer via a few different avenues. Firstly, they’re studying the radiation that astronauts are exposed to in space, hoping it can help in identifying causes and possibly treatments. They’re also studying incubated cancerous tissue, to better understand how it develops compared to non-cancerous tissue. Furthermore, imaging technology developed to study the depths of lakes can be used to give more accurate mammograms and could reduce the number of women over 50 dying by 30%; a new, smaller probe is also in development that could give instant results.
4. Advanced New Wheelchair Technologies
NASA has put in so much work to advancing the wheelchair, it’s almost a shock they didn’t invent the wheel itself. Firstly, they built stronger, lighter, and more compact wheelchairs. While that’s not exactly incredible, it’s not too easy to do, and makes a huge difference to wheelchair users (the weight in particular.)
Furthermore, they developed an amazing voice-activated wheelchair. It responds to basic commands, like “forward,” “backward,” etc, but also comes equipped with a mechanical arm that can perform a multitude of tasks, such as picking up items and turning doorknobs.
Finally, they recently came up with a new design that takes a lot of strain off the wheelchair user. This new design lets the user move forward by pulling the wheels backwards, shifting the weight of the chair to stronger muscles. Just like how rowers sit backwards in their boats, the new chair requires a lot less effort and energy, and is completely revolutionary.
Now this one is like something lifted straight out of sci-fi. The Biocapsule was developed to treat a number of problems astronauts may encounter when in space, such as exposure to high levels of radiation. Like the Scandu Scout, it was developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center, but is inserted under the astronauts’ skin. When something is detected, its carbon nanotubes will release medicine-filled cells to counteract anything that could cause an astronaut to become ill. Because of their design, they can’t be broken down naturally, and so are incredibly long lasting.
While this is a great invention for the health of astronauts, its implications are far greater down here on the ground. Although it hasn’t been applied yet, a patent has been taken out that will allow these biocapsules to treat diabetes. They would monitor the blood sugar levels of the diabetic, and stabilize it, eliminating the need for insulin shots or constant blood sugar level monitoring.
2. Prosthetic Limbs
Until recently, artificial limbs were pretty basic. Wooden legs and heavy claws for hands were the best thing to offer to somebody who had lost a limb. But now, we’re seeing more and more advancements that can really make a difference. Legs capable of running, and hands capable of of functioning just like a human hand, are becoming a reality. NASA has helped drive many of these advancements forward, making limbs that are stronger, lighter, and smarter. The material for these limbs was developed by NASA for the space shuttle, but now provides higher quality prosthetics to many, at a fraction of the cost.
Never content with what they’ve already accomplished, NASA has also collaborated with a few different institutions to help build an exoskeleton much more advanced than anything we’ve seen before. Although still a bit chunky, this exoskeleton is much smaller and stronger than those that came before. Intended for use by astronauts on other planets, it could also soon be a viable option for people who are paralyzed or need help moving.
1. Cochlear Implants
Cochlear implants help to restore hearing to people who are either hard of hearing or losing the ability to hear. They work by stimulating the auditory nerve, and have helped countless people since their development in the 1960’s. Unlike many of the other entries, this was not a result of technology developed for another use and applied to those with hearing problems. This was a direct, intentional result of NASA’s efforts to fight hearing loss. Adam Kissiah was an engineer at NASA, and when he began to lose his hearing, they allowed him to use their resources to study a way to help those like him. Pretty soon, he developed the Implantable Electronic Hearing Aid, which has become the base design for all cochlear implants today.