Could space technology help us track the next pandemic?

When the pandemic began shutting down businesses, workplaces, and social gatherings, Dave Williams found himself unconsciously reverting to habits from decades ago; as he says himself, he switched back to “astronaut mode”.

Like people around the world, Williams found himself locked up at home more than he wanted to. Unlike most people, he has been to space twice and holds the Canadian record for spacewalking. Has some familiarity with life and work in a confined space without getting burned or falling into an internet burrow at 2am. M.

As Williams points out, NASA, to put it mildly, knows a thing or two about what happens to people who spend too much time alone.

So she made sure to get up and plan her day, making time to exercise and eat well, but also to participate in activities she found meaningful and take care of her mental health, relying on many of the same sources of discipline and creativity. used in space.

“I think that’s one of the great lessons of the space station,” he says. “Have a plan and execute it.”

As an astronaut, Dave Williams completed two space flights, logging more than 687 hours in space, including three spacewalks.

Space travel has made headlines again thanks to a recent boom in private flights boarded by the likes of William Shatner, whose career was based on fictional trips to the stars. But as some herald a new golden age of space, some experts are hopeful that as the industry boldly goes where it hasn’t gone before, everyone involved won’t forget the significance space technology can have for our health here. at home.

Lessons learned among the stars may even, they argue, help detect and track the next pandemic.

At least that’s the argument of a group of space experts, including several Canadians, including Williams, in an article for Nature Medicine last month, in which they argue that current space technology is already helping to monitor and mitigate COVID- 19, and it could be useful for the next pandemic.

“People often don’t feel the benefits of the space program on a day-to-day basis,” says Williams, who became director of life sciences at Johnson Space Center in Houston and headed the Southlake Regional Health Center in Newmarket. , Ont.

“They see space as something that is very expensive and often they say, ‘Well, if we didn’t do that, we would have all that money to solve problems on Earth,’ and yet at the same time, space technology is everywhere. . “

He points to things like the cameras often used in phones (based on miniature cameras invented for space missions), Michelin tires (the company also made tires for space shuttles), and even the heart monitors that are now used on patients with COVID in intensive care. (a version of technology used to track the health of Apollo astronauts who went to the moon) as examples of space technology that has infiltrated everyday life.

But space technology has also been used to help manage a pandemic. Satellite technology, for example, is capable of capturing the ultimate big picture when it comes to figuring out how to tackle disease.

In the global fight against polio, Bill Gates has previously spoken on how his foundation has used satellite imagery to develop vaccination plans in countries like Nigeria, where some towns do not appear on official maps.

Last June, NASA teamed up with the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to create the COVID-19 Earth Observation Panel, which uses multiple data sources, including satellite imagery, to track everything from population mobility up to changes in greenhouse gases. production.

In the future, this type of information can also be used to track infectious diseases that come from animals, says report co-author Dr. Farhan Asrar, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Toronto, as well as an expert. global faculty member of the France-based International Space University.

What’s known as teleepidemiology involves the use of satellite imagery to track animal movements and watersheds to predict where a disease might travel.

Then, of course, there is the whole field of telemedicine or treatment from afar. Healthcare providers around the world tried during the pandemic to try to help patients over the phone or through a phone screen, but space agencies are old when it comes to monitoring the well-being of their astronauts.

Things like portable monitors that send data to a doctor elsewhere are common in space, but could have great potential during a pandemic, where people had limited access to crowded healthcare facilities, or even in northern Canada. he adds.

“One of our suggestions was to explore these technologies that were used for space and the potential it could have today, for people who were isolated for quite some time in their homes, how do we monitor their care?”

Of course, space travel as a publicly funded endeavor is ushering in a new era driven by private companies. The rise of space companies run by billionaires like Elon Musk has raised concerns in some circles that the final frontier is being handed over to the highest bidder.

When the pandemic began shutting down businesses, workplaces, and social gatherings, Dave Williams found himself unconsciously reverting to habits from decades ago;  as he himself says, he switched back to

But Williams remains optimistic that the private sector can advance knowledge in new ways, forging new technology that could still reach the average person. Much of what we know about the health of astronauts, for example, has been learned in recent decades as people have spent longer and longer periods on the International Space Station.

Scientists now know more about phenomena like the reduction in bone and muscle mass that occurs over time in space, and about less-expected things, such as the evidence suggesting that bacteria that cause food poisoning like salmonella might turn into super virulent once it leaves Earth. Private companies will send a more diverse range of people into space, which means we could learn even more.

In 2020, SpaceX was the first private company to bring astronauts to the International Space Station, meaning the stage is now set for public-private partnerships in the same way that commercial aviation once redefined air travel, adds Williams. . (Although as the space station nears the end of its expected useful life in 2024, Jeff Bezos Blue Origin plans proposed Monday for a commercial space station dubbed “Orbital Reef”).

But Williams, who says he believes humans were meant to be a space species, believes it is inevitable that the lessons of space will be reflected back to Earth.

For those of us trapped on Earth, space travel can seem like an inherently outward-oriented endeavor. But Williams points out that those in space spend much of their time looking back.

“When you’re out on a spacewalk, you look back at the beauty of our planet. This incredible and beautiful blue awaits us; it seems enriching. Then you look into the infinite and hostile void of space, it seems terrifying, ”he says.

“If you look back at our planet, you realize that this is a planet four and a half billion years old, and on it the entire history of our species takes place. And we really need to protect this for the future. “

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