Space medicine for health on Earth
In the last decades space medicine has helped to increase the knowledge on the adaptation of the human body to the space environment, enhancing methods and means for crew medical support and health monitoring, and providing valuable observations which have also shown to be beneficial for terrestrial applications.
From the Vostok Programme to the International Space Station
Space medicine has emerged as a distinct science to support human space exploration. It was accorded formal recognition within the medical community in 1951, when early attempts in the area of space flights demonstrated the need for reliable support systems, which could protect astronauts and cosmonauts against the threats of the space environment. Its role within the space exploration initiative increased as the possibility of human space flight drew closer to realisation.
The pioneering flights of Gagarin (first manned orbital flight) and Shepard (suborbital flight) - respectively in April and May 1961, in the frame of the Vostok Programme and of Project Mercury - were specifically designed to prove the human capability to survive and perform in space. All cosmonauts and astronauts returned to Earth in satisfactory states of health: principal medical findings of the projects were spatial disorientation and motion sickness, weight loss due to dehydration and minor cardiovascular deconditioning.
After NASA's success with Project Mercury, Project Gemini’s (1965-1966) main objective was to determine whether humans could survive long–duration space flights. Besides the cardiovascular deconditioning, which had been already observed, further physiological changes such as bone demineralisation were identified during Gemini. However, the successful conclusion of the project confirmed that humans could live and work in space for longer periods, and long enough to complete a lunar mission.
The long-duration flights during the Apollo Programme and the Soyuz Programme provided the opportunity to study more closely the effects of exposure to space. This opportunity was further enhanced by the Salyut and Skylab orbital stations, which offered the first long-term space habitat with on-orbit living and working quarters and use of sophisticated scientific equipment.
The Salyut and Skylab Programmes therefore provided a great amount of biomedical data on the physiological effects of long-term space missions. Among the new significant biomedical findings of the long-duration space flights were bone mineral loss and muscle atrophy. A deeper knowledge was acquired on vestibular disturbances – the problem known as "space motion sickness".
The scientific approach to the study of physiological and psychological adaptation to the space environment lead to the development of more efficient life support systems and countermeasures to physiological deconditioning, as well as to the implementation of psychological support programmes to ease the stress of long time confinement, thus opening the way for a new era of space exploration: the creation of an outpost in space, with continuous human presence.
Benefits for health on Earth
Since the first crew entered the International Space Station (ISS) in October 2000, the ISS has been continuously manned. Regular flights bring supplies and experiments and ferry astronauts up and down, and a permanent crew of two or three astronauts live and work on board the ISS, conducting experiments on behalf of the scientific community on Earth.
It is in particular the health sector that can benefit from the unique findings of space research. The numerous laboratories and facilities aboard the Station allow exploring cellular differentiation and growing protein crystals of unprecedented size and complexity, which can help in designing next-generation medicines. Studying how the human body adapts to the lack of gravity can help to cast light on common diseases, thus supporting the developments of efficient treatments or cures.
Motion sickness has been one of the major findings since the early spaceflights. Pharmaceuticals specifically developed to prevent and arrest kinetosis in space crews demonstrate their effectiveness against any other forms of "terrestrial" motion sickness, a common problem which affects many people setting off for long journeys by air, sea, and even by car. Finding a solution to this problem would be a major contribution not only in spaceflight, but also in health care.
The effect of the microgravity environment on bones mimics osteoporosis. After a long stay in space, astronauts suffer from bone loss, triggered by lack of load on the skeleton and reduced muscle activity caused by the absence of gravity. Therefore, research in weightlessness is ideal to develop effective measures that may reduce or prevent bone loss. Countermeasures and diagnostic instruments developed for astronauts, combined with new biological models and techniques for bone modelling, bone tissue engineering and growth might help to improve treatment of osteoporosis which affects millions of people worldwide, with continuously increasing costs.
Cardiovascular problems and rehabilitation
The working of the cardiovascular system is strongly influenced by Earth's gravity. Tests can be conducted in space which help us to understand the functioning of the heart and the blood-pressure regulation system of the body under very different circumstances. This might lead to the development of new diagnostic tools, or to the identification of new treatment methods after heart failure. In addition, a prolonged stay in hospital can lead to severe adaptation problems that require advanced rehabilitation techniques, both for the cardiovascular system and also for the muscles; exercise devices specifically developed for astronauts in space can be extremely useful for rehabilitation.
Advanced Medical Equipment
Several biological and medical devices originally designed for space proved to be also suitable for terrestrial applications. From resistance trainers developed to prevent muscle loss in astronaut and which can now be used in fitness and rehabilitations centres, to sensors designed to monitor astronaut’s bodies which can be employed to monitor babies. Many examples exist of space technology which has been introduced into public health services.
Also, many devices developed for use in space present notable advantages over their terrestrial equivalent, including small size, high tolerance to impacts, vibration, temperature variations etc. For this reasons these instruments find easy applications in medical care in remote areas, isolated environments, or in natural disasters and catastrophes, which makes them particularly competitive on the medical equipment market.