Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Go for launch!

When Neil Armstrong took that one giant leap for mankind on the moon’s surface more than four decades ago, he probably had no idea how the space program would turn into a public health Hercules.

The NASA Applied Sciences Program links data gathered from space to projects that track malaria, forecast dust storms that can trigger asthma attacks, predict possible influenza outbreaks and more. A key focus is to monitor ways climate change is impacting health because, as NASA’s John Haynes said during a Wednesday Annual Meeting session, air quality, water and other things tracked from space “have a direct impact on public health issues across the globe.”

NASA satellites orbit the Earth and gather “slices of data” on weather patterns, vegetation density and countless other factors “much like you’re peeling an apple,” Haynes said during the session “NASA: A Unique View of the Earth for the Study of the Environment and Possible Associations with Disease Occurrence.”

The satellite data is not just for seasoned public health professionals. NASA has a student research program designed to help undergraduate, master’s level and even high school students get involved in harnessing space info for the greater health good. Students work with a NASA mentor to use data that can then be used for community-based projects like education outreach on the threats of tick-borne diseases.

Also, a pilot program in three U.S. cities is working to go further than National Weather Service heat advisories and target people at high-risk for heat-related illness and link them with services. One presenter talked of his projects aimed at giving advance notice to school nurses about dust storms and tracking pollen blooms that often set off asthma and allergy attacks.

“We’re looking at the best science,” said Stanley Morain of the University of New Mexico. “We’re really trying to get to the heart of our ability to do these things.”

Talk about a giant leap for mankind.

— D.C.

Above image courtesy NASA photo galleries

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