Is NLM Building a Library on Mars?

The planet Mars as seen from space

Safe, productive human space travel requires more than sophisticated spacecraft. From environmental conditions to the physiological and psychosocial impacts, NASA’s astronauts face unique challenges while living in space.

To help address those challenges, NIH and NASA established a research partnership in January 2016. The research opportunities arising from this partnership and through NASA’s Human Research Program are expected to improve health both for the population on Earth and for those who travel to Mars and beyond.

What’s the Library’s role?

Well, we’re not getting ready to build an NLM outreach-to-Mars program (yet!), but we are involved in issues related to informatics and health information technology.

We’re expanding our collections and the standard health care terminologies (MeSH, SNOMED, LOINC, RxNorm) to address new environments (i.e., space) and the health concerns faced there (e.g., long-term muscle wasting, bone loss, space radiation exposure). MeSH, for example, already includes terms related to space flight, such as hypogravity and weightlessness; PubMed offers a subset of content focused on space life sciences; PubMed Central houses peer-reviewed papers resulting from NASA-funded research; and our History of Medicine Division holds a unique collection of scientific studies, technical reports, books, and pamphlets received from NASA in 2015.

We’ll also work to fully identify the information and resources needed to support biomedical research and to deliver health services to humans who may be light years away. We can potentially build upon NLM’s current work with machine learning and image recognition to speed diagnosis, and enhance our telemedicine efforts to account for an interplanetary communications delay approaching 42 minutes between Earth and Mars. We’ll further refine our emerging data science methodologies to accelerate discoveries in real time during manned missions. And perhaps most important to me, we’ll imagine—and plan for—a future without the internet.

No internet?!

Astronaut and moon reflected in the window of the space stationCurrently the internet is essential for the delivery of NLM’s most-used services, but there is no internet in space. We need to anticipate an independent technological infrastructure that will allow us to support research and medical care without it.

Such foresight, planning, and commitment can yield great results. Indeed, because of NLM’s leadership of the High Performance Communication and Computing Program 24 years ago (1992), we had satellite communication services in place to support the long-distance conversation between NIH Director Francis Collins and Astronaut Kate Rubins last October (2016).

But thinking systematically about how to deliver scientific knowledge in space will yield benefits long before the Orion spacecraft sets course for Mars.

While we don’t expect the internet here on Earth to go away, we must be prepared to deliver 24/7 access to NLM resources in the event of an interruption in internet service, whether due to natural disasters, construction failures, cyberterrorism, or even solar flares.

So, the next time you hear that NLM is working on human space exploration, remember that, while we’re planning for an information-rich future, we’re also ensuring an information-available present.

The library on Mars will come later.

Co-authored by Dianne Babski, Deputy Associate Director for Library Operations, who serves as the NLM representative to the NIH/NASA Biomedical Research Partnership.

Photo credit (Mars in space, top): Composite NASA Hubble Space Telescope Image (October 19, 2014) | cropped

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

2 thoughts on “Is NLM Building a Library on Mars?”

    1. Thanks — and I am grateful for the wisdom and insight of my colleagues who are preparing the NLM for the future while making sure it serves the present!

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