NASA, as it should be, keeps an eye on today and another eye on tomorrow. Essential work in space exploration continues, but most of the US space agency's workforce now works from home. And many of them are engaged in the direct fight against the new coronavirus.
It is one of the great advantages that a country reaps by maintaining a fantastic group of engineers focused on the biggest technological challenges that the human mind is capable of conceiving, exploring the unknown. On April 1, the agency submitted to its employees a call for ideas on how to use their capabilities to help in the health crisis. In two weeks, more than 250 of them emerged, which were then subjected to an internal voting process in order to be prioritized.
On Thursday (23), some of the results were presented: a new low-cost respirator, a positive pressure helmet and a surface decontamination system.
The Vital respirator has the face of NASA. Not only is “Vital” a somewhat forced acronym (Locally Accessible Ventilator Intervention Technology), but it meets a large list of prerequisites: it needs to have few parts, have fast construction and maintenance, have economically viable mass production and not to be a substitute capable of competing with the current medical supply chain – the worst thing now would be to break hospital equipment manufacturers.
The system was created by JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), where many of NASA's interplanetary missions are designed, and has the function of helping the breathing of less critical patients from Covid-19. It was tested at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York and is awaiting approval from the FDA (agency that regulates drugs and food in the USA) for emergency use. The patent is naturally free, and the idea is that several companies can manufacture it. Its use would release traditional respirators for patients in a more serious condition.
The positive pressure helmet was developed at the Armstrong Flight Research Center and is basically a system to treat patients with milder Covid-19 symptoms, preventing them from passing to ventilators. The helmet uses a pressure differential to facilitate the entry of air into the patient's lungs. The device was tested by doctors at Antelope Valley Hospital and 500 of them are already in production. They are also awaiting FDA authorization for widespread use.
Finally, a team from the Glenn Research Center developed portable and economical equipment to decontaminate spaces and ambulances in less than an hour, for a fraction of the cost of the systems in use today. The system, called AMBUStat, is already being used in police vehicles and other spaces to quickly deactivate viral particles on surfaces. Research continues to make it more and more efficient.
In parallel, with an eye on the future, the agency continues in preparation for the first launch of astronauts by a private company, on May 27, and the launch of the next Martian jeep, in July (the space station needs crew members, and the alignment of the planets does not respect pandemics).
The more cynical reader may wonder if it would not be more efficient to shut down NASA and open an agency dedicated to the problems of the now Earthman. I return with a question: would this hypothetical “today” agency attract so much competence and creativity if it were focused only on the immediate need? Could these products have been designed without those who dream about the future of humanity and the expansion of the realms of science? It is a reflection for another week of social isolation.
This column is published on Mondays, in Folha Corrida.