Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q&A: Astronaut Monitoring

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Longtime reader and Google-follower Lisleman of A Few Clowns Short asks:
"I was wondering about health issues. Would you say that astronauts are the most monitored humans around? Do they monitor them constantly while in the ISS? Lastly, have the doctors ever prevented some illness because they noticed a warning in the monitored levels of an astronaut?"

I had a wild guess that individuals in prison might be the "most monitored", but this is an interesting avenue, both medically and operationally. I had some inklings, but called upon a couple buddies in Mission Control to point me in the right direction.

Houston Mission Control 2005
NASA physiologist Liz Warren @Spasmunkey (also featured in my Workers At NASA section) says:
Prior to an ISS flight, I'd have to agree astronauts are some of the most medically monitored people on the planet. Millions of dollars are invested in each astronaut during training, and we ensure they don't get sick and jeopardize the mission. Astronauts are keenly aware that they are replaceable.

During flight, astronauts have weekly private chats with their flight surgeons and psychiatrists. In terms of medical monitoring IN-FLIGHT, there isn't much. Exercise is monitored via a heart rate monitor. There is a portable blood analyzer on-orbit for routine analysis, but I've heard it doesn't work. According to it, everyone who is in space is deceased. The blood and urine samples gathered for research are frozen and analyzed on the ground after the crewmember goes home.

I am not aware (due to medical privacy) of any medical intervention that prevented someone from getting sick on-orbit. However, one Russian mission was aborted prematurely due to a crewmember developing a medical issue in-flight.

NASA Flight Surgeons
Dr. Jennifer Law, Flight-Surgeon-In-Training, says:
How do you define "most monitored"? I can think of intensive care unit patients that are more closely monitored with invasive blood pressure & heart rate monitoring, temperature probes, and so on. Astronauts don't get this kind of medical scrutiny when they're on orbit. Prisoners may be monitored all the time in terms of their location and activity, but I don't think anyone keeps track of their vital signs and other physiological parameters.

Modern astronauts aren't monitored all the time like astronauts in the early space days were, and don't wear electrodes 24/7. They get routine physicals and are monitored during activities like exercise, EVA, and certain experiments, but the rest of the time they are not monitored per se, though like Liz said they do chat with their crew surgeon regularly so that any budding issues are addressed early.

As for medical interventions that prevent astronauts from getting sick on-orbit, we tend to focus on what we call primary prevention, e.g., astronaut selection, health maintenance, crew quarantine prior to flight, and regular exams. The irony is that when we do our jobs right, none of the astronauts get sick and we have nothing to show for it! Though I do know arrhythmias have been noted in space.

Astronaut Electrodes (NASA Archive)
Flight Controller Mike Allyn @FTCMike says:
Jen brings up a good point as to context of the word "monitored". I jumped to medical because of the question about preventing illness, but I can speak to monitoring the crew on a non-medical basis. Through various means of telemetry monitoring, MCC can often extrapolate what the crew is up to. Power draw always increases in the Service module when the crew starts turning on lights. We can also tell if there are crewmembers awake from the control torques on the vehicle. Rate measurements are so accurate coming from the US Rate Gyro Assemblies (RGA's) and the Russian Givus that the commands to control the torque of the Control Moment Gyro's (CMG's) react slightly to the crew bouncing off the walls.

We protect the crew's sleep and off duty time as much as we can. So being able to tell when they are awake is useful for the cases when we need to talk to them at the earliest convenience, but it's not worth waking them up for. Another way to tell if a crew member is up and moving is by smoke detector scatter measurements. Anytime there is a tiny bit of dust detected by the many smoke detectors, they register increased scatter. One way this increases is by crewmembers working and moving in close proximity to them, which increases airflow and kicks up dust.

So there you have it, Lisleman! Hope that answers all your questions -- and very special thanks to our friendly neighborhood NASA pals for their time and expertise!

8 comments:

lisleman said...

Thank you everyone. That was more of an answer than I expected. Interesting information from the useless portable blood analyzer to being able to detect they are awake by the gyro controls. I assumed while in orbit they had monitors attached to them and maybe wirelessly transmitted data back. Thanks for all the info.

Scott said...

That is unbelievably cool. I read a lot of space blogs, but I don't know any others where someone can just call up Mission Control to ask them what's what. So can you get us launch tickets or what?

Michael said...

From the Shuttle side of things, flight controllers monitor the O2 and CO2 levels inside the cabin, and the EVA officer monitors what's going on inside the suit. But only the flight surgeon has direct insight into the health of a crewmember by way of biomedical sensors during an EVA. Otherwise, the crew is not monitored unless they're doing medical experiments, and they have a nightly private medical conference (PMC) with the flight docs.

One thing nobody considers is that for both shuttle and ISS, Mission Control can tell when someone's using the space toilet! The fans are electrically powered, and you can tell what someone's doing by how long the fans run (some things take longer than others).

I've been inside MCC during the post-insertion time frame and you can tell by the plots of electrical current... "there's one person using the toilet, it's a short one... there's crewmember #2, they're peeing too..." because when you first get into space, the liquids inside your body redistribute and your kidneys think there's too much, so you have to pee shortly after getting into space. If you can't make it to the toilet because you're busy, well, that's why they wear diapers!

PillowNaut said...

@Lisleman, glad you liked it! @ Scott... um, no sorry, LOL ;)

@Michael, thanks so much for your input! All very good stuff, and gives a great picture of the actual modern monitoring, either deductive or direct. I didn't forget about you, but tend to go ask the folks in MCC I've known a bit longer -- are you available for questions?? I'll tweet them to you; I get stuff from kids from time to time too!! :)

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Ocean Girl said...

Hi. Thank you for such an inside info and thank you for answering Lisleman's question. Michael's input makes me know that there is a toilet in the shuttle because people always like to say astronauts in diapers that somehow made me think there was not toilet because they won't be able to use it.

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