In July 1997, the University of Yale and NASA have started a partnership for the development and testing of next generation technologies in the telemedicine domain. Their latest project involved the health condition follow up of four mountain climbers, who reached Mount Everest's summit last May. Through NASA's Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS), a telecommunications bridge has been installed between Mount Everest and the participating research institutions. The expedition formed an excellent opportunity to try out some innovative health care devices, based on space science technology. Mountain climbers indeed are exposed to huge medical challenges similar to astronauts in a space shuttle.
The climbing quartet has been equipped with personal status and vital-signs monitors, as well as specialised cameras on their heads. As a result, health and position data, and live video could be transmitted to the base camp where a team of the American Department of Defense and the MIT Media Lab of Cambridge, Massachussets, was following the final ascent. A satellite link between the base camp and both Yale and MIT was provided by NASA's Lewis Research Centre in Cleveland, to enable further data travel to the academic scientists in order to analyse the complications caused by high altitude adaptation, physiological stress and extreme environmental conditions.
The Mount Everest experience should lead to optimised design of future automated medical monitoring and care systems for long-term stay in space. In addition, NASA is working on virtual environments for surgery, decision support systems, and advanced medical monitoring techniques, to prepare the ambitious Mission of the International Space Station. Currently, telemedical applications are already being integrated in the human space flight programmes of the Space Shuttle and the Shuttle/Mir combination. NASA has also established a telemedicine connection with Moscow over the Internet, referred to as "Spacebridge to Russia".
This telemedical network links the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, with Star City in Moscow, allowing NASA physicians to medically support the astronauts, who are training in Russia. The "Spacebridge" project constitutes as such a model for international telemedical activities. Telemedicine in space opens tremendous perspectives for the improvement of health care on earth. Through the intensive use of reliable and inexpensive telecommunication, medical consultation has come within the reach of millions of people in isolated and low-served regions. Projects supporting the rural population in the Arizona Pagago Reservation and the Armenian citizens after the earthquake of 1988 have proven the potential power of telemedicine. Please, consult the Web site of NASA's Telemedicine Programmes to learn more about health care in space and on earth.