Stories of Service: NASA employees partner with local communities to help COVID-19 patients
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Stories of Service: NASA employees partner with local communities to help COVID-19 patients

June 10, 2020 | Updated on October 21, 2020

Photo above: NASA engineer Mike Buttigieg works on an oxygen hood system prototype worn by Dr. Daniel Khodabakhsh from the Antelope Valley Hospital in California. Credits: NASA/Carla Thomas.

Most people wouldn’t think of NASA, the organization that sends astronauts into space and rovers to Mars, as having a role in the fight against COVID-19. But NASA engineers have developed a ventilator and an oxygen helmet to help coronavirus patients, adapting the items from projects already underway, and have already received emergency use authorization from the FDA. In addition to the new equipment developed, NASA employees submitted more than 200 ideas for other ways the agency can help in the fight against COVID-19.

“Our employees are driven by a desire to do things that have never been done before,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator. He added that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine directed the senior leadership team to see how NASA could use its expertise and technology to help the nation. “My job is to enable the workforce to do the amazing things we have asked them to do.”

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers team up and design ventilator

In March, two engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory just outside of Los Angeles, who worked together on the Mars landing missions, formed a team of engineers to address the shortage of ventilators used to treat COVID-19 and how they could make effective, easy-to-produce ventilators. The team came up with several designs, “embodying the spirit of innovation at NASA,” Jurczyk said.

Within weeks, the team was testing the designs in its labs and at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “Their ventilator design takes one-seventh of the parts of commercial ones and are made up of parts that are readily available and easy to use,” Jurczyk added.

A tight-knit community works together to develop oxygen helmet

If any organization knows about providing oxygen to the body, it’s NASA. That’s why doctors at Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, California, sought help from NASA engineers working just down the road at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

“The hospital staff approached our engineers and asked them to design a helmet that would force oxygen into the lungs for COVID-19 patients with minor symptoms, but who didn’t need a ventilator,” Jurczyk said. The engineers worked with the doctors to design and test prototypes and provided the design concepts and results to companies that could build and distribute the helmets. In late April, one company began initial production of 500 units.

250 more ideas in the works

NASA offers a platform called NASA@WORK, on which employees can post a challenge that other employees can help solve. Several recent ideas have centered on the nation’s needs during the coronavirus.

One idea led engineers “at Goddard Space Flight Center [in Greenbelt, Maryland] to develop a breathalyzer that can detect COVID-19 antibodies by using nanotube technology,” Jurczyk said. Another involves how the agency can use its space-based sensors to track changes in air pollution, water quality and human activity related to COVID-19.

NASA’s global connection is more than just space

Employees have a strong connection to their work and its impact around the world, Jurczyk added. “Their ability to contribute to global issues is what motivates our teams to do the research and develop the technologies.”

Year after year, NASA is ranked as the best large agency to work for in the federal government, and that’s important to Jurczyk. “At NASA, our missions of research, science and space are compelling, exciting and challenging, and our employees want to be a part of that.”

For more information on NASA’s work to combat COVID-19, read the agency’s press release.

More COVID-19 Stories of Service

You can also read our other Stories of Service, including the story of three VA doctors using telehealth technology to care for veterans and a Q&A with NASA’s Joel Carney on how the agency has kept its employees up to date during the pandemic.