Former football star and host of “Good Morning America” Michael Strahan will take off with a crew of five other passengers on December 9, amid a global pandemic and increasing cases of the new omicron variant.
Strahan won’t be the first civilian in space. In September, the launch of Inspiration4 sent four civilians (a medical assistant, an aerospace worker, a professor and a billionaire) into orbit. In October, William Shatner became the oldest person to go to space, at the age of 90.
Civilian spaceflight launches have been in the spotlight at a time when COVID devastated regions around the world. Some, like Prince William, have even criticized the obsession with spaceflight, saying billionaires and businesses should focus more on solving problems closer to Earth.
But could the technology developed for space help us fight the pandemic?
An article published in September in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine examined how space technologies could be used to help manage and prevent pandemics.
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Telemedicine was “developed by space agencies”
When astronauts are in space, for example, their medical information is meticulously tracked, the newspaper says.
In fact, astronauts often conduct medical experiments in space to help researchers better understand how the human body reacts to the properties of space, according to Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA.
For the launch of SpaceX Inspiration4, McAlister said, civilians conducted a series of experiments, such as blood draws in space, and shared the data with researchers on Earth.
“Telemedicine has also been developed by space agencies to provide care and monitor the care of astronauts,” says Dr. Farhan Asrar, physician and global faculty member at International Space University. Asrar contributed to the Nature Medicine article.
Likewise, Asrar points out, telemedicine can be used to monitor and assess COVID patients remotely without the risk of infecting healthcare workers.
Asrar says wearable technology has already been used by Canadian astronauts to monitor several key health parameters, such as blood pressure, temperature, respiratory rate and heart rate, all of which have been broadcast hundreds of miles away. Earth aboard the International Space Station.
These wearable devices can be used by healthcare workers to detect early on if they are developing and spreading symptoms, the document suggests.
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Use satellite imagery to monitor progress
Satellite imagery could help with pandemic planning and the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, according to the newspaper.
Satellites launched into space have already helped trace the transmission of the disease during the Ebola outbreak, the document said. In the fight against polio, satellite images have uncovered marginalized and previously unknown villages in Nigeria, aiding eradication efforts.
“There are several parameters that you can monitor using satellites,” says Asrar. “We can monitor the ideal temperatures for these infectious conditions so that if an epidemic does strike, you can use this technology to monitor the progress.”
Asrar cites the use of satellite surveillance on mosquito populations as a potential way to predict malaria epidemics.
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Isolation and development of techniques to preserve mental health
Another thing we can learn from astronauts is the science of managing isolation, the paper says.
Astronauts often have to be in space for days or months, with little or no contact with loved ones. Likewise, social distancing guidelines have prevented people from coming together and made those with limited technological resources even more isolated, the document points out.
In another article published in Nature in May 2020, the astronauts shared their ways of dealing with isolation in space, including having a carefully managed daily routine and structuring work around an inspiring mission.
Both research papers suggest that by understanding how astronauts cope with isolation, we can develop better techniques to maintain our sanity during the pandemic.
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Follow Michelle Shen on Twitter @ michelle_shen10