Health & Science

Mars Journey: Researchers Test Methods For Doing ‘Astrosurgery’ In Zero Gravity

NASA is hoping to send humans to Mars within twenty years. In the private sector, companies are working on plans to mine asteroids and launch tourists into orbit. This all means humans will soon be spending longer and longer amounts of time in space, and potentially getting sick or injured up there. As KUHF Health and Science reporter Carrie Feibel found, researchers are already developing the techniques to conduct surgery in space.

Astrosurgeons give thumbs up
Astrosurgeons getting ready to train on the Zero gravity plane

The 727 taxis to a stop at Ellington Field. It’s a specially modified plane that many simply call “the vomit comet.”

The plane has spent the last few days flying in arcing parabolas so scientists can conduct experiments under zero-gravity conditions. It’s the last flight of the day and the scientific teams are packing up their equipment.

“It was a constant challenge, and it’s a good thing we had straps over our feet so we could keep ourselves planted.”

Jennifer Hayden, a researcher from Carnegie Mellon, says it was her first time experiencing weightlessness.

“I constantly had the sensation like I was upside down. Even though I knew I wasn’t, I just constantly felt I was upside down because there was no weight.”

On the vomit comet, each episode of zero gravity lasts about 20 seconds.

But Hayden and her two colleagues had no time to enjoy it. They were busy cutting into fake arteries to make fake blood flow out, and also operating on a pig’s heart.

George Pantalos is with the University of Louisville. He says the experiments will help surgeons learn how to control blood flow in outer space. Without gravity, blood forms into globules and floats around.

The astrosurgery team with modified infant incubator
The astrosurgery team used a modified infant incubator to test how a blood substitute would flow when released under zero gravity conditions. The researchers received a grant from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which supports development of technology for future space travel.

“You can’t have blood squirting across the cabin. You can’t have tissue and other debris either leaving the patient and getting into the cabin or possibly some contaminant from the cabin infecting the incision.”

Eventually, the team plans to build an enclosed surgical chamber to keep everything inside.

“What we envision when the development is done is a clear plastic device about the size of half a grapefruit. So that it could stick directly over the location on the patient’s body where the surgery is necessary.”

The plastic dome would have little ports where the surgeon would insert instruments and work inside.

And here’s the innovative catch – the dome would be filled with a clear fluid, so the doctor would essentially be operating underwater.

Hayden says a doctor could use the fluid to suck away escaping blood. Or, just dial up the fluid pressure inside the dome to stop the bleeding entirely.

“By applying a pressure that is greater than the pressure inside the vessels, you should be able to slow, or hopefully even completely stop bleeding from that vessel, and then you would go ahead and repair the damage with cautery or suturing it shut as you would normally here on Earth.”

patch surgery on space

The team won a grant from NASA to conduct the experiments.

Dougal Maclise is with NASA.

He says astronauts are already rigorously screened for health issues like heart disease.

But a long-distance space journey has other risks. These include radiation exposure, progressive bone loss, and accidents like fractures or crushed limbs.

“An accident could happen where a projectile would be sent out and could puncture one of the astronauts.”

Maclise says even if a Mars launch is decades away, all the surgical tools, all the zero-gravity techniques, need to be tested and ready to go when the rocket takes off.

“You’d really prefer that you not have something like the MASH hospital on Mars, trying to figure out how to do these surgeries because things are now different in a Martian gravity than they are in everything they trained on back on Earth.”

The research field is so young, it doesn’t really have a name. So Pantalos, Hayden and their colleague Dr. Jim Burgess have dubbed it “astrosurgery.”

Unlike blood in zero gravity, they’re hoping the word sticks.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.


Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

More Information