In 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman became the first Muslim, Arab and Saudi to fly into space. Saudi Arabia has since made strides in the field, making significant investments in the space sector, launching over a dozen satellites into space — including locally made satellites — and collaborating with NASA and the space agencies of other countries, including Russia and the UK.
The various initiatives the Kingdom is undertaking will play a key role in the country’s Vision 2030.
When one thinks about space, the usual careers that come to mind are in space exploration, communications, and engineering involving satellites. However, public health and medicine also play a crucial role in space and vice versa.
Ensuring the health and safety of astronauts is necessary for the approval of all human space missions.
Providing medical care for astronauts involves several challenges, including limited diagnostic devices and other resources available in space.
Not all space missions have a doctor among the crew. Over the years, space medicine and technology have evolved to better cater to the needs of human missions, such as the enhancement of remote medicine and the development of compact and portable medical devices.
Space technology has already played a role in our lives, but many are not aware of it and are not giving space due credit for its innovations.
When you use your global positioning system, or GPS, to get from one place to another daily, you are using space technology.
Even if you are taking a picture using your cell phone, you are using technology developed by NASA. Weather forecasts, traffic reports, and telecommunication all involve space and satellite technology.
Space has also played a vital role in supporting Earth-based healthcare and the environment.
My colleagues and I previously published works on the role of space in environmental monitoring, disaster management, public health emergencies, and infectious disease outbreaks. Several space agencies have launched satellites that monitor various environmental pollutants that impact health.
In a publication released in the current issue of one of the world’s leading medical journals, “Nature Medicine,” my colleagues and I highlighted the critical role that space technology can play in the monitoring and mitigation of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the prevention of future pandemics.
The co-authors in the paper included Canadian astronaut Dr. David Saint-Jacques, who is also a family physician and who recently returned from a mission aboard the International Space Station; Dr. Dave Williams, a former Canadian astronaut and the former director of the Space and Life Sciences Directorate at NASA; as well as other experts in space medicine and from NASA and the UN.
We explored space-based technology and areas such as telemedicine (using telecommunication to provide healthcare remotely), tele-epidemiology (using space remote sensing to find the causes of diseases and other health issues), and satellite imagery.
We also highlighted innovative medical devices made for use in space and for astronauts, such as the Canadian Space Agency’s Bio-Monitor, which was used by Saint-Jacques during his recent space mission aboard the ISS and which can be a valuable tool in crises to monitor the health of others remotely.
In summary, as KSA continues to make significant growth in the space sector, it has the potential to fuel advancements in innovative space-based approaches to healthcare and become a regional leader in the field.
Greater awareness by health professionals and environmental and public health stakeholders of the role that space technology can offer in healthcare can eventually allow for their more widespread access, benefiting a greater number of people.
• Farhan M. Asrar MD, MSc, MPH, CCFP is an assistant professor at the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto and is a collaborator/co-investigator with the ISS Immunoprofile Study in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA.