Although there is no requirement that a physician be part of a spaceflight crew, at least two crew members are given medical training before each mission, NASA flight surgeon Josef Schmid says. This training is meant more to identify and treat common space- and pressure-adaptation problems that the astronauts may experience than to treat serious medical conditions. Medical experts like Schmid on the ground serve the astronauts' health needs before and after each mission.
Once the astronauts blast off, however, physicians are limited in the care they can provide. "Our surgical hands today are the crew members' hands," Schmid says. No remote surgical capabilities exist to bridge the distance between earthbound medical support and the astronauts, which is why Schmid envisions a time when physicians will be part of every crew sent into space, especially during missions to the moon or to Mars that may last months or even years.
The tests were taking place as NASA Administrator Michael Griffin this week told the 58th annual International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad, India, that he is convinced the first humans will land on Mars by 2037. Griffin's comments also coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union's historic launch of Sputnik 1 into space. During his tenure as NASA chief, Griffin has become a controversial figure for, among other things, questioning whether global warming is an issue that needs to be imminently addressed and for claiming two years ago that it was a mistake for NASA to continue the space shuttle program rather than to prepare for trips to the moon and beyond.
The technology NASA and SRI are testing is still in its infancy as the researchers attempt to answer basic questions such as whether a robot can tie a knot for a suture or place an intravenous needle under conditions simulating spaceflight. "That's the whole thing, to really be able to push the technology," says Schmid, who was part of an 12-day NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO 12) mission earlier this year during which a six-member crew tested the M7's ability to conduct a variety of advanced medical technology experiments, including robotic telesurgery, in a laboratory located more than 60 feet below the ocean's surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The NEEMO project is a direct extension of the space program as it explores the inner space of the ocean, trains astronaut crews for long-duration missions and serves as a platform for scientific discovery and equipment evaluation for long-term spaceflight.
Although voyages deeper into space are still several years away, the M7's success during the trials means the technology could be used more immediately to perform lifesaving surgery in the back of a speeding ambulance or in the cabin of a military aircraft used to evacuate and treat wounded soldiers.