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6 Ways NASA Technology Makes You Healthier

6 Ways NASA Technology Makes You Healthier

An important part of our mission is keeping astronauts
strong and healthy during stays in space, but did you know that our technology
also helps keep you healthy? And the origins of these space innovations aren’t
always what you’d expect.

As we release the latest edition of NASA Spinoff, our yearly publication that
celebrates all the ways NASA technology benefits us here on Earth, let’s look
at some ways NASA is improving wellness for astronauts—and everyone else.

1.     
Weightless weight-lifting

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Without gravity to work against, astronauts lose bone and
muscle mass in space. To fight it, they work out regularly. But to get them a
good burn, we had to get creative. After all, pumping iron doesn’t do much good
when the weights float.

The solution? Elastic resistance. Inventor Paul Francis was
already working on a portable home gym that relied on spiral-shaped springs
made of an elastic material. He thought the same idea would work on the space
station and after additional development and extensive testing, we agreed.

Our Interim Resistive Exercise Device launched in 2000 to help
keep astronauts fit. And Francis’ original plan took off too. The technology
perfected for NASA is at the heart of the Bowflex Revolution as well as a new
line of handheld devices called OYO DoubleFlex, both of which enable an
intensive—and extensive—workout, right at home.

2.     
Polymer coating keeps hearts beating

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A key ingredient in a lifesaving treatment for many patients
with congestive heart failure is made from a material a NASA researcher stumbled
upon while working on a supersonic jet in the 1990s.

Today, a special kind of pacemaker that helps synchronize
the left and right sides of the heart utilizes the unique substance known as
LaRC-SI. The strong material can be cast extremely thin, which makes it easier
to insert in the tightly twisted veins of the heart, and because it insulates
so well, the pacemaker’s electric pulses go exactly where they should.

Since it was approved by the FDA in 2009, the device has
been implanted hundreds of thousands of times.

 3.  Sutures strong enough for interplanetary
transport

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Many people mistakenly think we created Teflon. Not true:
DuPont invented the unique polymer in 1938. But an innovative new way to use
the material was developed to help us transport samples back from Mars and now aids
in stitching up surgery patients.

Our scientists would love to get pristine Martian samples
into our labs for more advanced testing. One complicating factor? The red dust
makes it hard to get a clean seal on the sample container. That means the
sample could get contaminated on its way back to Earth.

The team building the cannister had an idea, but they needed
a material with very specific properties to make it work. They decided to use Polytetrafluoroethylene
(that’s the scientific name for Teflon), which works really well in space.

The material we commonly recognize as Teflon starts as a
powder, and to transform it into a nonstick coating, the powder gets processed a
certain way. But process it differently, and you can get all kinds of different
results.

For our Mars sample return cannister prototype, the powder was
compressed at high pressures into a block, which was then forced through an
extruder. (Imagine pressing playdough through a mold). It had never been done
before, but the end result was durable, flexible and extremely thin: exactly
what we needed.

And since the material can be implanted safely in the human
body—it was also perfect as super strong sutures for after surgery.

4.     
Plant pots that clean the air

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It may surprise you, but the most polluted air you breathe
is likely the air inside your home and office. That’s especially true these
days with energy-efficient insulation: the hot air gets sealed in, but so do any
toxins coming off the paint, furniture, cooking gas, etc.

This was a problem NASA began worrying about decades ago, when
we started planning for long duration space missions. After all, there’s no
environment more insulated than a spaceship flying through the vacuum of space.

On Earth, plants are a big part of the “life support” system
cleaning our air, so we wondered if they could do the same indoors or in space.

The results from extensive research surprised us: we learned
the most important air scrubbing happens not through a plant’s leaves, but
around its roots. And now you can get the cleanest air out of your houseplants
by using a special plant pot, available online, developed with that finding in
mind: it maximizes air flow through the soil, multiplying the plant’s ability
to clean your air.

5.     
Gas sensor detects pollution from overhead

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Although this next innovation wasn’t created with pollution
in mind, it’s now helping keep an eye on one of the biggest greenhouse gasses:
methane.

We created this tiny methane “sniffer” to help us look for
signs of life on Mars. On Earth, the biggest source of methane is actually
bacteria, so when one of our telescopes on the ground caught a glimpse of the
gas on Mars, we knew we needed to take a closer look.

We sent this new, extremely sensitive sensor on the
Curiosity Rover, but we knew it could also be put to good use here on our home
planet.  We adapted it, and today it gets
mounted on drones and cars to quickly and accurately detect gas leaks and
methane emissions from pipelines, oil wells and more.

The sensor can also be used to better study emissions from
swamps and other natural sources, to better understand and perhaps mitigate
their effects on climate change.

6.     
DNA “paint” highlights cellular damage

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There’s been a lot of news lately about DNA editing: can genes
be changed safely to make people healthier? Should they be?

As scientists and ethicists tackle these big questions, they
need to be sure they know exactly what’s changing in the genome when they use
the editing tools that already exist.

Well, thanks to a tool NASA helped create, we can actually
highlight any abnormalities in the genetic code with special fluorescent
“paint.”

But that’s not all the “paint” can do. We actually created
it to better understand any genetic damage our astronauts incurred during their
time in space, where radiation levels are far higher than on Earth. Down here,
it could help do the same. For example, it can help doctors select the right
cancer treatment by identifying the exact mutation in cancer cells.

You can learn more about all these innovations, and dozens
more, in the 2019 edition of NASA Spinoff.
Read it online or request a limited quantity print copy and we’ll mail it to
you!

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