Invent Health: Finding Common Ground

Featured image photo credits: on ; Reeve Jolliffe on ; United Nations Development Programme on ; and on

By Susannah Fox

How many times have we heard people say, “If we could put a man on the moon, we can fix XYZ health care problem”? Or: “Hey, it’s not rocket science, right?”

So, when I met Dava Newman, the Deputy Administrator at the (NASA), and began a conversation with her about innovation at our agencies, I was eager to learn how to apply their famous “horizon mission” spirit to health and human services. We found common ground on many topics, but most particularly the development of new “hardware” such as (Dr. Newman’s specialty) and in the principles of open innovation for new medical and assistive devices (part of our initiative).

Our teams quickly identified another shared mission: to sustain human life in extreme environments. The power-, mass-, and volume-constrained setting of the International Space Station (ISS) is not unlike the challenges we face when setting up a remote health clinic, either here in the U.S. or abroad. We set out to explore the overlap between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and NASA, with a particular focus on innovative design and creation of devices and the built environment.

On April 11 and 12, HHS, NASA, and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, TX, convened a symposium, “Space Matters in Health.” This post is the first in a series to share the lessons we learned.

From the HHS side, we invited colleagues from the and the who could share insights from their work in global health, citizen science, and technology transfer. NASA invited engineers, flight surgeons, and life sciences experts. UTMB invited clinicians who specialize in long-term polar expeditions, an architect who helped build their , and nurses who are involved in the creation of the first in a hospital.

Since every day is potentially an Apollo 13 challenge in the lives of people living with disability, whether because of a birth difference, an injury, or age, we included experts from and the . Current and former employees brought a creative, design-thinking spirit and an active-duty service member of the provided perspective on how innovation happens in the field of combat. We were thrilled to include a member of the team, which designed the first 3D printer for the ISS (and who also works for , a humanitarian group).

For this first post, I want to share one lesson learned: We had more in common than we could have imagined.

In reading the biographies of all the invited guests, I noticed that people used different terms to describe their work in similarly challenging and remote environments, whether on Earth or in space. Words like:

  • Extreme
  • Hostile
  • Austere
  • Resource-limited
  • Power-, mass-, volume-constrained
  • Isolated

The bottom line for all of us: We can redesign the system. We can redesign the devices we use and the buildings that surround us. We can’t redesign human beings or the environment. We must engage in “human-in-the-loop” testing (a NASA phrase) to ensure that we never sacrifice the human in service to the machine.

Further, it was our colleague from the AARP that drew the circle even closer by pointing out that the isolation that someone may feel while on a mission to Antarctica or to Mars is similar to the isolation experienced by many older adults who live alone and do not have a team of people looking out for them. What lessons can we learn — and apply — across all the work we do? How might we empower people in those resource-limited, isolated situations to make the best of the materials they have on hand — or to improve their capability to create new tools on the spot?

Stay tuned for more updates and lessons learned from our trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and UTMB in Galveston.

Originally published at on April 19, 2016.

Leave us your thoughts in the response section of this post! Not sure how to leave a response? Read .



We promote the use of innovation across the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to better enhance and protect the health & well-being of Americans.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


We promote the use of innovation across the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to better enhance and protect the health & well-being of Americans.