Aerospace medicine and biology - Exploring frontiers
Seven astronauts laid down their lives on January 31 this year. Their space shuttle Columbia fell apart when it re-entered the earth's atmosphere. This was the first time in NASA's history that re-entry caused a tragedy of such magnitude. The astronauts on board were to conduct several experiments. Some of the experiments were to analyze changes that take place in human beings, and proteins under zero gravity conditions. The results of these experiments were to go a long way in developing medicines to treat several diseases, including cancer.
Aerospace medicine and biology is an exciting and challenging frontier in science. Not particularly recent, this frontier involves studies and research in medical problems such as toxicity and weightlessness, medical aspects of astronaut performance reaction, and neurophysiology. In addition NASA's programs have assisted several ongoing cutting edge technology and processes at hospitals.
A brief overview of the several projects and experiments that NASA is into.
Office of Biological and Physical Research
Gravity has been viewed by humans as an inescapable constant, but these views have been challenged by space programs after experiments were conducted on low gravity. Space experiments and programs are opening newer avenues and questions on science and technology in gravitation. Gravity has profoundly affected the way life has evolved on earth. Now space explorers have to find newer ways to withstand space environment hazards, something that they were never prepared for.
OBPR works at answering questions on:
The specific roles gravity and other aspects of the space environment play in biological and physical processes.
The research must we do to enable humans to live and work safely in Earth orbit, and to venture beyond low-earth orbit.
Several medical and diagnostic processes and technologies have benefited by different programs of NASA. Some of its contributions to medicine are:
Breast cancer examination
Mammographies are used to detect breast cancer. Till recently, after the doctor espied a troubled spot on the x-ray, he or she would order a biopsy procedure; which in turn would require a surgery to cut into the breast and obtain a tissue sample. Now, with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope technology, such biopsies can be performed with a needle instead of a scalpel!
Cool - laser heart surgery
Nobody thinks it's "cool" to have a heart operation, but thanks to NASA technology a "cool" laser is providing thousands of patients with an alternative to heart bypass surgery.
While preparing for Apollo's moon landing in the mid 60s, NASA developed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to allow computers to enhance moon images. This technology is now being used to record images of organs in the human body. Currently computer-aided tomography (CATScan) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) are two of the most widely used body imaging techniques.
Prosthetics or the making of artificial limbs is a complex field. The Harshberger center, which specializes in making these limbs, faced several daunting problems. Harshberger approached NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) for help. MSFC builds the external tanks of the space shuttle, for which they use a special kind of foam insulation. After some research Harshberger used this foam to make molds for the fitting of artificial limbs, which turned out more effective and less expensive.
The technology used to study space probe photographs sent back to Earth is now being used to analyze human chromosomes. This could result in early detection of abnormalities and disease prediction in infants.
NASA Microgravity Research Program's Biotechnology is in the most dynamic segments of science - biotechnology. Biotechnology is playing an increasingly important role in pharmaceutical drugs, agricultural research and products, and environmental protection. NASA's microgravity program contributes to three principal areas of research: Fundamental biotechnology science, protein crystal growth and cell and tissue culturing.
Space and Life Science Directorate
The mission of the Space and Life Sciences Directorate is to be the world's leader in understanding the space frontier and the opportunities, capabilities, and limitations of humans living and working on that frontier.