NaviNet Admin on July 25, 2014

Look to the Skies: Three Medical Advances Owed to NASA Space Program

In a week of seemingly endless horrific news, we share some lasting gifts of that magical July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 Moonwalk and the NASA Space Program. Thomas Donnell, Isabelle Groper, and Conor Ingari describe three medical breakthrough technologies that owe their beginnings to those who dared to look to the skies and dream beyond “what was possible.”

In March 1969, The Godfather was published and remained a best-seller for months. The record of the year was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” juxtaposed by the album of the year—Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Woodstock was a music and cultural revolution a month after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin collected 21.7 kilograms of moon rocks. Bad things were happening then, too. We still had air raid drills and practiced how to “duck and cover.” The Vietnam War was raging, and the draft instituted in 1969 created an even bigger divide in the country.

Down in hot, humid Houston (which John F. Kennedy described in September 1962 as, “What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space.”), amidst the whirl of cicadas and the slap of the ever-present (Texas-big) mosquitos, my three siblings and I were allowed to stay up past 8:00 p.m. to watch Neil Armstrong take those floaty, bouncy steps on the Moon and state, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” 45 years ago. We believed that the men at Mission Control (who also barbequed, threw footballs, and drove carpool) could do anything—guiding those heroes home from the Moon was a piece of cake.

Today, most of your cellphones have more computing power than Apollo 11. According to Behavioral Science Technology Inc., NASA scientists have pioneered more than 6,300 technologies that are used in daily life in their quest to understand the galaxies beyond Earth. Three standout medical advances owe their beginnings to technology developed at NASA:

  • Kidney Dialysis Machines. Fluid recycling technology has been utilized in the medical world for kidney dialysis machines. According to the article “Critical Care Dialysis System” published in Health and Medicine, this use for fluid recycling was discovered during a NASA project contract with Marquardt Corporation. Originally, this technology was created for purifying water while in space. Once the technicians discovered the chemical process could be used to remove toxic waste from used dialysis fluid, Marquardt developed a new company project for kidney dialysis machines.

    What the company created was a new form of dialysis named “sorbent dialysis.” When compared with conventional single-pass dialysis, sorbent dialysis owns the upper hand in many ways. Used dialysate can now be chemically renewed to fresh dialysate and put back into the machine as opposed to throwing it away after one use. Also, this system has made it much easier to alter the chemical composition of dialysate to meet individual patients’ needs. Fluid recycling developed under NASA has unexpectedly developed into a superpower in the medical world.

  • Invisible Braces. The transparent ceramic brace brackets are made from spacecraft materials. Who would have thought that missile technology would help a teenager be less self-conscious of the braces across his teeth? NASA answered that question with the invention of ceramic brace brackets known as invisible braces. These braces are made out of translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA), which can become a very thin, yet strong material.

    A company called Ceradyne developed the material in conjunction with NASA Advanced Ceramics Research. TPA was made as protection for infrared antennas on heat-seeking missile trackers. NASA scientists noticed the benefits of TPA’s strength, transparency, and smooth properties. Because of those attributes, they were able to use TPA to create the invisible braces. These transparent, removable braces have taken the industry by storm because people want to avoid a mouth full of metal. Companies now use the invisible braces to treat millions of patients worldwide.

  • Exercise Equipment. The microgravity environment of space could cause an astronaut’s cardiovascular system, bone, and muscle strength to deteriorate because it decreases the production of plasma, which carries oxygen throughout the body. Astronauts have had to learn to adapt to the drastically different lifestyle in space in a highly restrictive atmosphere. Various machines were designed to maintain bone and muscle strength through exercise.

    The introduction of revolutionary machines like the cycle ergometer, treadmill, and Resistance Exercise Device (RED) has ensured that astronauts’ bodies are creating a sufficient amount of plasma and efficiently exercising to stay fit. According to CNN, a newly introduced exercise machine called the “flywheel” ensures astronauts are staying physically active. The groundbreaking yet simple technology “overcomes the absence of gravity” (CNN.com). This piece of equipment has not only been developed and used in space, but also in rehabilitation centers around the globe, as is the “horizontal trampoline.” Although these machines are seemingly among the most simplistic aboard the space vessels, their impact is significant. The creation and production of this exercise equipment have inspired the development of new technologies worldwide. Now, rehabilitation centers and professional athletes are finding that the same technologies designed specifically for space programs are helping them retain bone and muscle strength.


Thomas Donnell, Isabelle Groper, and Conor Ingari are interns on the Medicare Sales team at NaviNet this summer.

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