These astronauts are training in medicine by playing video games

The Polaris Dawn mission will not launch before March 2023. Image: Polaris Program/John Kraus

The Polaris Dawn spaceflight, a SpaceX mission due to launch in March, will be a first-of-its-kind mission. Its crew will attempt the first commercial spacewalk. It will also be the first crew to test Starlink laser communications in space. If all goes as planned, the mission will set a new record for the highest Earth orbit ever achieved.

The crew will conduct dozens of scientific and research experiments to study the effects of spaceflight and space radiation on the human body.

However, of the four crew members on the private space mission, only one has specialized experience in human biology and healthcare: Anna Menon, SpaceX’s principal space operations engineer, who worked for seven years at NASA as a biomedical flight controller for the International Space Station. (ISS).

How to prepare a crew to use medical tools and perform diagnostics on their own

This lack of experience presented SpaceX with a unique challenge: how to prepare a crew, with limited training time, to use medical tools and perform diagnostics on their own – and do so in space, unassisted and in a location where the environment is harsh. obviously completely different from Earth?

The answer: video games.

SpaceX has partnered with Level Ex, a company founded seven years ago, to train the Polaris Dawn crew to perform medical ultrasound procedures. Level Ex uses real-time simulation technology to gamify medical education, all in apps you can download to your phone.

Level Ex’s mission – founder and CEO Sam Glassenberg told ZDNET – is “to advance the practice of medicine through play”. The company is “accelerating the adoption curve for new treatments and devices using video game technology and design,” he explained. “Space health is just a local extension of that.”

“Your heart physically changes shape – it becomes more spherical in microgravity – and your blood flow changes direction”

Level Ex already has three million players using its games, including more than a million healthcare professionals, according to Glassenberg. Its portfolio of games is aimed at specialists such as cardiologists and pulmonologists. In Gastro Ex, for example, doctors can practice gastrointestinal procedures with different endoscopic tools in apparently real anatomy, but in virtual reality. Meanwhile, Airway Ex allows physicians to practice intubating virtual patients in realistic operating rooms.

screenshot of the Level Ex game, showing a virtual rendering of a patient opening his mouth

Screenshot from a Level Ex game, showing a virtual rendering of a patient opening his mouth. Image: Level Ex

The company also works with life science device manufacturers to accelerate learning and adoption of its technologies.

Medical training simulations are a big hit with healthcare professionals because they represent a great leap forward over the alternative of learning to perform new procedures or use new tools on real patients. This same logic clearly applies to training astronauts, who simply don’t have time for full medical training. Astronauts train for years to participate in a week-long space mission. With so much to learn, “we don’t have time to give everyone a medical degree in space health,” Glassenberg said.

Furthermore, practice on Earth will not replicate conditions in space. “Your heart physically changes shape – it becomes more spherical in microgravity – and your blood flow changes direction,” noted Glassenberg. “So how do you know if what you’re seeing is normal?”

“Doctors also play video games”

In 2019, Level Ex received a grant from NASA to create the most realistic real-time ultrasound simulation ever, to provide what is called “just in time” training for astronauts. NASA has contracted the video game company for its possible Mars missions.

“Imagine you were on a mission to Mars for nine months,” said Glassenberg. “Suddenly, one of the astronauts grabbed his chest in microgravity and passed out. What if it was the flight doctor?”

On a mission this far from Earth, astronauts on board would not be able to call the mission control center for assistance. They would also find themselves in a resource-limited environment where ultrasound is the only medical imaging technology available.

Building on the work it began with NASA, Level Ex has partnered with SpaceX and others to develop just-in-time training and flight procedure guidance to help crews use ultrasound. During the Polaris Dawn mission, the crew will track their blood circulation patterns and measure the effectiveness of just-in-time training, with the ultimate goal of preparing future space travelers to monitor their health during long-term missions.

“They are trying to prepare us to live in space,” said Glassenberg.

Although Level Ex’s games are designed for mobile devices, their graphics are on par with console games. “You won’t find fluid dynamics and the things we do in mobile games,” said Glassenberg.

Before creating Level Ex, Mr. Glassenberg was involved in creating realistic video games at Microsoft and LucasArts. He developed the first Level Ex game as a favor to his father, a doctor looking for better fiber optic intubation simulations.

It was “surprisingly easy” to convince doctors to use game-based training apps, he said. “At first, we were nervous about adopting the gaming brand, but we thought it resonated. Doctors play video games too.”

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