Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Medicine from space
I am floating in darkness, looking down at the earth. All I can hear is the sound of my own breathing - calm, peace and tranquility. I don't wonder where I am or where everyone else is. I just take in the beauty of the view from outer space.
I wake up in a fit and realize I'm dreaming. It happened again last night. I sat in my bedroom looking at the dark stillness and wondering why I've been having that same dream about space travel since childhood.
NASA has been on my mind lately. Last Friday was the 38th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first manned moon landing. Yesterday, two astronauts left the International Space Station for a 6.5 hour spacewalk. Their tasks included removing and jettisoning a refrigerator-sized ammonia reservoir. On our planet, that reservoir would weigh 1,400 pounds.
People have been traveling to space for more than 45 years. Only about 400 humans, five of those space tourists, can consider themselves astronauts. It's a small club and I do realize the infinitesimal odds that my astronaut dreams will ever become reality. As I learn more about how the human body is affected by space travel, maybe I'm better off being a nocturnal Buzz Aldrin.
First, the good news, astronauts gain some 2 to 3 inches in height during a mission according to NASA and the Archives of Neurology. That's presumably because astronauts no longer have the pesky Earthly gravity pulling at their skeletons. Space travelers may gain a few inches, but they do lose a lot more. A phenomenon nicknamed "Moon face" occurs when a shift of fluids to the upper body creates a rounder, fuller face. The immune system changes; blood volume is reduced by about one-fifth; muscle mass decreases and bone loss occurs at about 1 percent per month according to physician astronaut Bernard Harris Jr. Compare that bone loss with the 3 percent to 4 percent a year lost by women who have hormone-related osteoporosis. NASA is vigorously researching ways to combat these effects on long-term space flight. As these scientists look to a mission to Mars that will most likely take one to two years of travel, they need better ways to help the human body cope under such extreme conditions.
Space shuttle missions yield scientific findings on topics affecting everyone -- tumor growth, climate change and telemedicine. Telemedicine, the examination or treatment of patients in remote areas using information communicated over long distances, has NASA to thank for its greatest advances. In 2004, I watched in an operating room as a surgeon in Ontario, Canada, communicated with an astronaut over a thousand miles away in an underwater habitat off the coast of Florida. With the surgeon's telementoring, NASA's Cady Coleman successfully completed a practice run at an emergency gallbladder surgery without any formal medical training. That's just one example of how telemedicine may shape the world of human health.
Do you think NASA or space travel affects you on a daily basis? Will space travel become reality for the average person in our lifetime? What do you think of NASA's contribution to field of research on human health? What do you think the future holds for space travel or telemedicine?
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