In 2014, Popular Science declared the engineering collaboration that saved the lives of all three Apollo 13 astronauts in 1970 to be “The Greatest Space Hack Ever.” A new generation of engineers responding to the coronavirus pandemic at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory might have their own claim to that superlative.
The magazine singled out as a singular American achievement the rapid prototyping of an adapter that allowed the crew to fit a square CO2 scrubber into a round opening, using material available to the astronauts already breathing toxic levels of carbon dioxide in the stricken Apollo 13 spacecraft. Engineer Ed Smylie, who specialized in life support systems, led that team effort to cobble together a jury-rigged solution that saved three astronauts’ lives with the world watching.
NASA’s latest hack supporting human respiration is a high-pressure medical ventilator created to treat COVID-19 patients that was authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration soon after a clinical test that concluded a fast-paced effort to conceive, design, and prototype the novel device, the aviation and space agency announced April 30.
It took just 37 days to go from an identified need for medical ventilators to a prototype. The NASA JPL team switched gears quickly from building and flying spacecraft to create the Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally (VITAL) prototype, which passed a clinical test April 21 at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. VITAL can be built more quickly than a traditional ventilator, is easier to operate and maintain, and contains far fewer parts, “many of which are currently available to potential manufacturers through existing supply chains,” NASA noted in the April 30 news release.
Working with what’s on hand was a hallmark of the 1970 hackathon at Apollo 13 Mission Control, though a hackathon had yet to become a thing.
It is now: NASA plans to work with its counterparts in Europe and Japan to pool the world’s collective talent in a two-day online event May 30 and 31, NASA announced in another recent news release.
The global Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge will be a 48-hour effort to learn about the coronavirus. Working online, participants will pool data from participating aerospace agencies collected by satellites, the International Space Station, and other space-based assets. They will study the coronavirus from a distance, hoping to learn more about how it spreads, and about local pandemic responses and changes within communities and regions. Participants will also look at environmental impacts. (NASA took its own whack at that in April.)
Bringing more brainpower together by inviting the world to collaborate may produce some remarkable insights and science, but it will be hard to top building a medical device from scratch in just over a month. Engineering Fellow Leon Alkalai noted in a NASA video that a combination of talent, innovation, and focus proved to be potent assets. “The other thing that I felt, I see it in our team, and that is a call to duty. I have this talent. I’m an engineer or a scientist. I can do something.”
VITAL is being offered to industry through Caltech, which will handle arrangements to produce it in numbers.
“Now that we have a design, we're working to pass the baton to the medical community, and ultimately patients, as quickly as possible,” said Fred Farina, chief innovation and corporate partnerships officer at Caltech, in a NASA news release. “To that end, we are offering the designs for licensing on a royalty-free basis during the time of the pandemic.”