NASA’s Contributions to the Global Pandemic

Published: May 06, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisCoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicNASA

The U.S. space agency combines its vast resources and the expertise of its workforce and industry partners to help mitigate the effects of the novel coronavirus facing the world.

Key Takeaways:

  • In the past, NASA applied its unique mission and capabilities to national disasters and emergencies; the agency is now doing the same in the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The agency is utilizing its advanced science and technology resources to design and build critical medical and decontamination equipment, as well as lend supercomputing capabilities to virus-related research.
  • NASA is using crowdsourcing and competitive challenges to solicit the experience of its workforce, and others, to help solve the pandemic’s collective trials.

Historically, NASA’s breadth of distinctive capabilities in science and technology has driven a number of leading innovations, contributing to successes in areas such as the disaster relief, advanced technology and health care. Now, the U.S. space agency is lending its resources and expertise to the current global pandemic. NASA is using various channels to help the public cope with changes from the pandemic, from supplying at-home STEM education projects for students to advice on how to live in confinement from astronauts. NASA is also supplying data from its satellites to depict the environmental effects of the pandemic. Aside from these, however, the agency is looking to apply its other unique resources to join the fight against COVID-19.

Medical and Decontamination Equipment

The combination of NASA’s advanced facilities and engineers is helping to create critical medical equipment needed to treat those hospitalized by COVID-19. For example, an engineer from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California collaborated with local industries and academia to build a prototype of an oxygen “hood” for coronavirus patients with minor breathing troubles. Called the Aerospace Valley Positive Pressure Helmet, the pilot design functions like a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine, forcing oxygen into low-functioning lungs. The helmet helps prevent patients with more subtle symptoms to go on ventilators, preserving them for those in critical need. The helmet successfully tested at a local California hospital and an emergency authorization was submitted to the FDA on April 22 in hopes of distributing helmets to hospitals nationwide.

Likewise, NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) designed and built the Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally (VITAL) device, a ventilator requiring fewer parts and less maintenance than traditional ventilators. The new device proves just as effective on patients with the most severe COVID-19 symptoms. The parts in the VITAL design are available at existing manufacturers, allowing quick production of the ventilators to boost the country’s stockpile. The flexible design, approved by the FDA on April 30, will especially help at field hospitals being set up across the world in response to COVID-19.

Not only is America’s space agency using its resources to prototype medical equipment in the fight against COVID-19, NASA is also helping to pilot tools to stop the spread of the virus. Those at NASA’s Glenn Research Center led the development of a decontamination device to kill airborne and surface particles efficiently and economically, compared to current systems in use. The small, portable device, referred to as AMBUStat, is now used in the most critical spaces such as ambulances, hospital rooms and police cars. Given NASA’s expertise in decontamination, particularly when it comes to the design of sensitive space equipment, no doubt the agency is providing additional help with decontamination solutions to continue stopping the spread of COVID-19.

High-End Computing Resources

When the federal government sought to form the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, NASA joined other federal entities and a slew of academia and industry to combine supercomputing capabilities across the country to help COVID-19 scientific research. Currently, the consortium has over three dozen active research projects. For its part, NASA is lending supercomputing capabilities to a team of 30 scientists to pursue advances in patient trajectories and outcomes. In particular, scientists are computing health data sets and patient samples to identify unique human sequence variations linked to high risk COVID-19 morbidity. The analysis aims to predict severe COVID-19 patients before cases reach intensive care levels, allowing for efficient allocation of healthcare personnel and resources.

Garnering Expertise

Also in response to COVID-19, NASA turned to its own employees to gather innovative ideas and solutions in related areas of the pandemic. On April 1, NASA launched the NASA @ WORK challenge, requesting employee submissions with ideas related to specific topics such as rapid design of personal protective and medical equipment and forecasting COVID-19’s spread and impact on society. The challenge also invites employees to respond with comments and questions on any other ideas or topics related to COVID-19. The agency reports that within two weeks of posting the crowdsourcing platform, it received 250 idea submissions, more than 500 comments and 4,500 votes from NASA personnel.    

In addition to looking within its walls for COVID-related solutions, NASA and the European and Japanese space agencies released a global challenge to garner help with the pandemic. On May 30-31, the space agencies will hold a virtual hackathon, inviting entrepreneurs, scientists, technologists, etc. to form virtual teams and utilize space data over a 48-hour period, to study a wide range of solutions from “the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and its spread to the impact the disease is having on the Earth system.”

NASA’s partners are also pitching in to help in the pandemic. One of the winners of the agency’s Centennial Challenges, which offers prizes for innovative ideas pertaining to NASA’s mission, developed a concept to turn carbon dioxide into glucose using a non-biological process to enable long-duration space exploration. The challenge winner, Air Co., now uses a similar process to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol for hand sanitizer production and donation to localities in need.