Starway to healthware*

Interview with Simonetta di Pippo, Director at the European Space Agency

by Ferdinando Scala

Starway to healthware*
Starway to healthware*

We met Simonetta di Pippo at TEDx Bologna, the Italian chapter of the famous channel, where the world's most brilliant minds share their knowledge and vision of the future. Simonetta is one of the prominent scientists at ESA and has long been Director of Universe Exploration and Director of Human Spaceflight.

In her own words, this means that she is a person completely devoted to space-related activities.

The pressure and the need for excellence required by space missions is such that the border between work and private life is blurred at best. On the other side, the reward is bringing our knowledge "Where no man has gone before", and this is thrilling enough to make people at ESA pay the price.

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While being a very exciting place of work for the people participating in the programs, space missions have also always been a strong moment for technological development. The strain on engineering capabilities that outer space environment exert, has been the technological engine for the development of countless inventions. Among the most notable examples there are Velcro, Teflon, diapers, television global broadcasting, cellphone communications or the global navigation systems like GPS and Galileo.

Like the machines, the human body is also hugely impacted by the great levels of stress when in space, and this has led to the development of a whole branch of medicine and healthcare-related technology, which in a sense could be labeled as "space healthware".

The stress is particularly evident when astronauts face long periods in space, like for example during the 6 months of standard permanence at the International Space Station (ISS), an international lab orbiting 400 km above the Earth. In fact, despite the high standards of basic fitness and training, astronauts develop a series of syndromes as a consequence of the absence of gravity, the presence of high levels of solar radiation and other extreme physical factors of the space environment.

The microgravity conditions present on the ISS, or the difference in gravity on the Moon, have cumulative effects on the organization and consistency of bones and human fluids. When confronted for the first time with outer space environments, astronauts show a characteristic "puffy" aspect, which is related to the fact that fluids like blood are no longer circulating linearly throughout the veins and arteries, but have the tendency to float around like water in a balloon. The abnormal circulation of blood also influences the normal functioning of the heart. From an articular and musculo-skeletric standpoint, stress is also high. The weightless conditions that astronauts experiment while in orbit often result in unnatural elongation of the spine, so that they are some centimeters taller than on Earth.

These particular conditions, offer the opportunity to perform medical studies, which also impact the treatment of illnesses on Earth. The development of Space Medicine has been in place since the very beginning of the space missions in the 1950s. It was initially set up to allow engineers to develop countermeasures aimed at protecting astronauts’ fitness in space. These activities directly reflected into daily life on Earth, since space physicians were able to suggest the application of the protocols they used for astronauts' protection or treatment on similar pathological conditions on our planet. The great impulse provided to medical research by space missions soon resulted in the formation of specialized institutes, like the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, founded by NASA.

Similarly to what has already been done in the USA, ESA is currently also assessing a project for a new medical research institute, called European Space Biomedical Research Institute (ESBRI).

The foundation of ESBRI could arrive at a time when governments are more and more cutting funds for space exploration. In this respect, ESBRI proposes itself as a scientific body, which can ensure an adequate return on investment in terms of positive outcomes for the general population. While fostering the space-related medical research, it will be possible to study a number of conditions which affect the increasingly aging European population. Age-related diseases as skeletal and articular consumption, articular strain, change in the blood's ability to transport oxygen or immunologically answering to external antigens are only a few of the subjects that ESBRI could study.

This has a direct economic impact for the governments which are funding space missions. Just to pick an example, the medical cost balance of hip fractures in Western Countries is €900M per year. This doesn’t take into account the human and rehabilitation costs associated with this kind of accidents, which normally are strongly disabling. Investing only a fraction of the abovementioned amount in financing space-driven healthcare research (e.g. in ESBRI) would ensure to have a very positive return of investment from both economic and society standpoint. In perspective, therefore, it can be very interesting for the elderly European population to put pressure on governments to fund programs which have such a strong potential impact on their health and quality of life.

In conclusion, the present trend toward the development of space-related medicine is one of the most important technological advancements that we can expect across the next years, and one of the best investments for our future on Earth. That’s why, investing in space is investing in life.

* One more thing...
"Starway to healthware" is an intentional title, which was aimed to attract readers’ attention by cognitive dissonance and a sort of phonetic déjà vu. We choose to play around the famous "Stairway to heaven" song by Led Zeppelin and the name of our company in order to deliver a concept which is "The way of stars (e.g. space missions) to health-related applications". Therefore, "Starway" is not a typo, while as "healthware" we intend the whole structural, functional, communicational, relational and economic hypervolume which encompasses the healthcare environment. As said, we wanted to attract your attention. Considering the amount of people which bothered to write us about the "typo", and using the space language one more time, we are happy to say "Mission accomplished".


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