From pacemakers to braces, the medical benefits of space exploration
From Medical Correspondent Dan RutzNovember 2, 1998
Web posted at: 4:53 p.m. EST (2153 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What do you think blast-off does to your blood pressure? When Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space 37 years ago, Project Mercury scientists had to invent an automatic measuring device to find out.
Today, you can find the device in just about any drugstore for an instant check-up. It is just one of an ever-growing number of medical spin-offs from space.
Scratch-resistant lenses for eyeglasses are straight from the stars. NASA needed something to protect satellites from getting nicked by space debris.
Speaking of satellites, how do they spring open after being cramped into a rocket for the ride up? The key is nitinol, a medical alloy with an almost magical ability to spring back into shape from the tightest contortion.
Nitinol makes wearing dental braces just a little easier.
"It allows me to engage every tooth in the mouth pretty easily," said Atlanta orthodontist Moody Williams. "Put it in and it works for a very long time. It never loses its activity."
NASA's chief historian, Roger Launius, said great ideas from America's greatest adventure are a bonus.
"The spinoffs are essentially serendipity," he said. "The primary mission of the agency is to fly in space."
In the early years of the space program, little was said about applied science or medical spinoffs. In those days, NASA got its clout from the space race with the Soviet Union.
"In that sense, it was a cold war agency," Launius said. "It emerged as a direct aftermath of Sputnik."
After the moon walk, in the 1970s, NASA started to make more of the medical achievements it helped foster.
Neurosurgeon Richard North of Johns Hopkins Medical School was a student then, collaborating with space physicists and medical engineers.
"They had this expression -- 'Launch it,' -- as a point of time at which one would have to rely on remote programming and interrogation to control this device."
Both a satellite sent into space and an electronic pain-control device implanted in a patient are out of reach and adjustable only by telemetry born of the space program.
With less effort than it takes to change channels, a patient with the electronic pain-control device can find relief thanks to miniature electronic components inside the body.
Heart pacemakers work through electronic monitoring similar to that used to operate satellites orbiting the earth.
"We thought going to the moon or going to the heavens, but what will it do for me?" Rabbi Sholem Kowlasky, one pacemaker patient said. "Most people did not know, especially the laymen."
Sam Zaccari, 56, a volunteer at John Hopkins Diabetes Center, has also come to appreciate the medical spinoffs from space. The implantable insulin pump that has kept his diabetes under control since 1986 borrows from the mechanical robot arm on the first Mars Voyager probe.
"It's wonderful because without this technology that we got today I wouldn't have the control I have and maybe I might not be here," he said.
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