2021 COPUOS STSC – Space and Global Health

Some of the dozens of engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory involved in creating a ventilator prototype specially targeted to coronavirus patients. The prototype was created in 37 days in March and April 2020. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

58th Session of the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee | Agenda Item 15: Space and Global Health

As delivered by Head of Delegation Kevin Conole, April 21, 2021

Thank you, Madame Chair.

The U.S. Delegation appreciates the subcommittee noting the crucial role of space data and technology in the public health domain through this agenda item and the Working Group on space and global health. The United States is a world leader in this field.

This has been an unprecedented year, with a worldwide pandemic having a profound impact on global public health. Yet, despite this, spaceflight technology has been used to alleviate the suffering of COVID-19. NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed a ventilator early in the pandemic that used less parts than traditional ventilators, was less costly, and was aimed at the specific physiologic concerns and lung abnormalities seen in COVID-19. From the drawing board to emergency use certification, the ventilator took 37 days. These engineering plans and schematics for this ventilator were made available to any country who had a need and willing to begin development. NASA has patented a technology to make oxygen via electrolysis, with less power, and more oxygen per unit than currently available oxygen concentrators. The result would be a large oxygen concentration unit capable of providing abundant oxygen to a small hospital or clinic, with the potential to scale larger. NASA also developed Continuous Positive Airway Pressure helmets to provide oxygen and pressure to patients in order to keep them off of ventilators. We partnered with hospitals to develop atomic oxygen sterilization techniques for personal protective equipment, allowing hospitals to re-use equipment that was in short supply. We partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop technologies aimed at detecting COVID-19 in a single breath test. NASA also donated critical supercomputer time to the National Institutes of Health to help model the virus. These technologies improve global health, and all of these came from spaceflight technologies or expertise.

NASA and NOAA Earth-observing satellites continue to play a key role for public health, by monitoring climate change and providing environmental data to help safeguard public well-being. Data from these satellites has been used to monitor environments favorable for viruses, such as Zika, and help predict risks for outbreaks of Malaria. In addition, NOAA is using satellite data and information from the U.S. and the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme to forecast Harmful Algal Blooms, which can produce toxins that pose serious health hazards. These data help anticipate and respond to health emergencies or, better yet, avoid them altogether.

In addition, NOAA operates the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) system – part of the international Cospas-Sarsat Program, which helps locate lost or distressed aviators, mariners and recreationists around the world. In 2020, NOAA satellites helped rescue 304 people in the United States alone.

The International Space Station’s (ISS) National Laboratory continues to make new discoveries with profound impacts to improve global health. Space-based research has provided valuable insight into the mechanisms behind bacterial behavior, informing efforts to develop new vaccines and antibiotics. We have learned how the ISS enables the study of fundamental plant development processes without the masking effects of gravity- knowledge that can be translated to improve crops and agricultural productivity back on Earth. On the ISS, we have learned that microgravity-induced changes in cardiac progenitor cells may aid in the development of cell-based regenerative therapies for heart disease. By studying bone cells in microgravity, researchers were able to uncover a potentially new avenue for drug development for diseases that cause bone loss and fragility.

Other examples of how space research and technologies significantly improve public health are that microgravity allows for an ideal platform to make new crystalline structures, which may be ideal for new pharmaceutical development technologies. This technology and unique crystalline suspension allowed improved formulation of cancer immunotherapy medications. In addition, we have seen new targets revealed for Parkinson’s Disease, and new possibilities for treatment methods gained from microgravity experiments.

Madame Chair, despite the pandemic, we have made unprecedented discoveries on the ISS national lab, and continued to use space technologies to address global health issues, including COVID-19. The accelerated pace of commercial spaceflight activities only opens more possibilities, with more companies and innovation making use of the microgravity environment.

Madame Chair, in conclusion, we look forward to continuing to work with the Working Group on Space and Global Health and thank Switzerland for serving as Chair. Thank you for the opportunity to share this information with the subcommittee and to highlight the health benefits of space exploration to the world, for the benefit of all humankind.