The Space Age of Medicine

By Greg Baird, MD


(Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, photo courtesy of NASA)

I just went to the Kennedy Space Center (much more up to date and interesting than the ET ride at Universal Studios, by the way), and here’s the conclusion: exploration of the moon has arguably influenced human life as much as Columbus did 500 years ago.

What has the Space Age done for medicine today?

Sputnik marked the dawn of the Space Age in 1957, and the resultant race to space has so far cost American taxpayers roughly the equivalent of one trillion of today’s U.S. dollars.  What do we have to show for it?  Was it worth it?  We can say we walked on the moon.  So what?  Does the end justify the means?  NASA publishes a journal, started in 1976, entitled NASA Spinoff and outlines the meaningful, life-on-earth contributions from the space program.  In this context, perhaps it is the opposite that is true: perhaps the means justify the end.


The following advances are a direct result from space research:

  • Portable (carry-able) oxygen
  • Infrared thermometers
  • Ventricular Assist Device (VAD)
  • First Aid “space” blankets
  • Prosthetic limb plastic material
  • Prosthetic limb robotics advancements
  • MRI and Ultrasound image clarity
  • Cost effective flow cytometry
  • Laser angioplasty
  • Photodynamic chemotherapy
  • Insulin pumps
·  Jaws of Life rescue power tool

·  Firefighter suit updates

·  Enriched baby formula and baby food

·  Advances in freeze-dried foods

·  FDA food handler’s regulation updates

·  Dialysis

·  New Physical Therapy Equipment

·  Brain surgery endoscopy techniques

·  Invisible teeth braces

·  Robot assisted surgery

And the less health care related:

  • Memory foam
  • Solar Panels
  • Wind power upgrades
  • GPS navigation
  • Infrared imaging
  • Open source and cloud based software
  • Virtual aeronautics testing software (much better airplanes)
  • Aircraft de-icing
  • Cement grooves for highways
  • Imaging hardware in cell phones cameras
  • Panoramic pictures and video
  • Marketable battery powered tools
  • Microchip upgrades
  • The computer mouse
  • UV blocking and scratch resistant sunglasses

To say that the inventions above never would have happened without sending rockets to space, is overstating the effect of NASA’s programs.  But what can be truly said is that NASA’s “updates” and “advancements” in the technologies above made them usable.  They are finally cheap enough to be used by the general public.


What will the Space Age do for us in the future?

So . . . to Mars!  That’s the shout these days.  But when?  2030?  And what will that accomplish?  It seems the accomplishment will hardly phase us when compared to the profound paradigm shift brought from walking on the moon.  We are not so easily impressed after 1969.  And we’re more selfish: hey, it’s the Millennial Generation, right?  What about me?  When can I go to space?

NASA is now partnered with commercial companies like Boeing and SpaceX to fund flights into low earth orbit and beyond.  With commercial market pressure, we can make reaching outer-space more efficient.  Maybe someone will finally invent a non-chemical rocket propulsion.  The middle class market of space tourism will explode! Put Boeing’s safety statistics and research into the space program, and maybe I can spend my next anniversary on the moon!  Well . . . not next year, but who knows?

Travel to Mars requires bigger luggage, but bigger luggage costs more to get out of low-earth orbit.  What if we built all the needed “luggage” in factories on the moon?  Watch the TED talks my friends. This is coming: when they redirect the asteroid to orbit the moon in 2020, there will be more mass to provide a slingshot launch to Mars.  Besides removing the 1990’s fear of Deep-Impact and Armageddon, creating a space-station orbiting the moon and then creating a mining/manufacturing colony on the moon is the first step to Mars.


What else can the future expensive space exploration do for us?  Let’s brainstorm:

  • Water efficiency

Dean Kamen can only do so much with Coca-Cola money.  The market on the moon will offer us billions of dollars worth of product development into on-the-spot water purification. No more cholera.

  • Modular farms

Imagine combining the grey and black water purification efficiency of the space station with Michael Reynolds’s Earthship movement.  We can build the third-world and remove barriers to point-of-use farming: everyone will grow their own food.  And we’ll create a real market in the first-world for local food and support the “Community Supported Agriculture” movement by making sustainable self-sufficiency.  Score 1 for the health food granolas!

  • Telemedicine

Talk about problems with health care access.  Apollo 13 taught us a bit about emergencies that far from home.  So how about advances using robots and telemedicine?  Or maybe they’ll give a discount trip to doctors going to the moon who are willing to be on call at the space hospital for a weekend.

  • Iron Man Suits

What happens to our earth-made bodies in low gravity?  We’ll have to fix it.  Once there is a commercial entity on the moon, there will be a market for better looking space suits.  Think what Nike will do with a market of people buying space clothes!  And then after that, let’s use the space suits to prevent osteoporosis on earth.  And maybe the rehab equipment can be built right into the suit as well: get rid of obesity while you sleep!  The Iron Man “house party protocol” suit can change my diapers when I’m 90 . . . while I’m skiing.

  • Controlled trials

How can you find a more controlled environment for study than in space?  No more confounders!  The “n” in the studies will grow with the colony on the moon.  Then we can finally resolve the vegetarian/paleo battle.

  • Long term studies/Weather Control/Life Expectancy

Let’s end with a bit of science fiction.  Think about an era where people regularly travel between the earth, the moon, and Mars.  We harvest asteroids in the asteroid belt and terraform them with an atmosphere and a magnetic field.  (We already did this on the moon based on research on Mars.)  We already fixed global warming on Earth with the research from Venus: no more population concerns.  And we’ve figured out how to travel very fast, too: 0.7c.  That’s the setup.

A research team, then, living on an asteroid, can travel very fast and dilate time such that their research can span much more Earth-time.  We can do 10-year Earth studies in 5 years of asteroid life.  Maybe we can finally establish a method for researching evolution: let’s get the human body back to the antediluvian 1000-year lifespan.  Maybe the travel distance will influence a race of photosynthetic skin hybrids: no more starvation . . . I hope the pancreas can handle it.  Maybe the asteroids can give us more hours in a day, too: perfect opportunity to study circadian rhythms.  Want more snow at Snowbird?  Ask the people on Mars how they did it…  And then take your iron man suit and ski all day, ACL-risk free.


Keep dreaming.  The means justify the end.


Greg Baird, MD is a third year Family Medicine Resident with the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine.


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