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How to handle a medical emergency on a deep space mission

Simulating a life-threatening episode en route to Mars

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Here on Earth, having a medical emergency means calling an ambulance and getting to a nearby hospital as soon as possible. In space, that’s not really an option. For astronauts living on the International Space Station, Earth is several hours away, and the only way to get back is on a capsule that plunges through the planet’s atmosphere. That’s why astronauts have basic medical training so they can deal with a medical emergency if one arises.

However, there is always the option to evacuate the ISS if a medical situation is dire enough. On a trip to the Moon or Mars, that won’t be a possibility. A trip to the Moon takes several days, while a trip to Mars could take several years. Astronauts on those missions will need to work autonomously to address any major health problems, especially those traveling to Mars, who will have limited communication with ground control. Radio signals could be delayed by up to 20 minutes each way on a Mars mission, which means they’ll be on their own.

Photo by Christian Mazza / The Verge

So how exactly do you train for medical emergencies in deep space? That’s something that Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston is working on. With funding from NASA, researchers at BWH have built a deep space medical sick bay at the hospital’s STRATUS Center for Medical Simulation. It looks like something ripped from a science fiction spaceship, but it’s meant to mimic what a real medical module might be like on a deep space NASA mission.

The room has medical supplies like a heart monitor and an ultrasound scanner, all packaged for a weightless environment. However, the supplies in the room are limited — as they would be in space. Getting anything super heavy off of Earth is expensive, and it becomes even more complicated the farther away from the planet you want to go. Every pound we send to Mars will be precious. That means astronauts will need to be able to use a small, but strategic, set of resources to address countless medical emergencies that could pop up en route to the Red Planet.

Photo by Christian Mazza / The Verge

In the second episode of Space Craft season 2, I visited the STRATUS Center’s medical sick bay to see what it will take to quell a medical episode on a deep space voyage. STRATUS is using the sick bay to run medical emergency simulations, creating scenarios that might arise on trips to the Moon or Mars. STRATUS is ultimately focused on crew dynamics: what are the best ways that astronauts can work together to save an ailing crew member? No astronauts have done these trainings yet, but STRATUS hopes to gather valuable information for NASA about what kind of interpersonal skills people will need when faced with an emergency in deep space.

While at STRATUS, I tried my hand at a few medical simulations. See how I fared in the video above.

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