One of the proudest moments in American history is the moon landing, however few people know of some of the specific issues that had to be addressed before space travel was possible. One concern was that the human body would not survive the launch or ballistic reentry. However, on December 13, 1958 NASA sent a primate into space and recorded biomedical data that was sent back for physicians and medical researchers on Earth for use understanding the possible impact space flight could have on humans. This is an early example of a unique telemedicine application that would act as the basis for many other applications in the future of space travel.
On Apollo 15, there was an incident with a seemingly healthy astronaut – James Irwin – who after working with no sleep for 23 hours was noticed to have an abnormal heart rhythm. This was detected thanks to a telemetry system that was put in place to monitor possible issues the astronauts would experience. This data was transmitted to a flight surgeon on Earth that diagnosed James Irwin with an episode of bigeminy, a diagnosis that often lands patients in the ICU. After conferring with other medical providers, Dr. Charles Berry communicated with the astronaut that since he was in 100% oxygenation, was constantly being monitored, and was in a zero-g environment causing as little stress as possible on his heart, it was as if he was already in an ICU setting. The episode resolved and the astronaut landed safely.
This monitoring that allowed physicians on Earth to make medical decisions about the astronauts in orbit set a precedent for future space travel. A current hot topic in space travel is forming around the idea of whether or not humans could survive a trip to Mars. In response to this, studies are being carried out in remote areas acting as extreme terrestrial analogs that mimic similar conditions that an astronaut on Mars might experience. One example is a study that was carried out in Antarctica using tele-ultrasound in a hostile environment where transmission can take several minutes. These types of studies prepare us for possible future space travel missions, and it is clear that telemedicine and remote monitoring tools will play an important part in the giant leaps over obstacles to come.