I bet you never asked what Snow White has to do with NASA. I never asked this before either, but it all made sense when I came across the story of Nikkie, a teenager who spent an entire month in a hyperbaric chamber. Possibly, just like Snow White.
Nikkie was rushed to a hospital after she was found in a coma due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. She was put in the coffin-like device to undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), in which pressure of oxygen is increased significantly. The high concentrations of oxygen can reduce the size of gas bubbles (CO) in the blood that block blood and oxygen flow to tissues – in this case, her brain. This also helps repair the damage caused. This process took about a month, spent between life and death. Afterwards she woke up and faced another 5-6 months of rehabilitation.
And Snow White? Before Disney came along, the best known version of Snow White was collected by the Grimm brothers in 1812. But the tale was well known before, however, and appeared from Ireland to Asia to Central Africa. What seems to be the earliest known version appeared in an Italian collection in the 1630’s. In that version there was no glass coffin. The young beautiful girl in the story is enslaved by her uncle’s cruel wife, and is later saved and married… But over the years, dozens of versions appeared in which Snow White escapes to the company of dwarves (or robbers, or miners), is poisoned, and is placed in the glass coffin.
The science of hyperbaric treatment was invented in parallel to the development of that story. That’s right, nothing to do with NASA. We’re talking about the 17th century, over 300 years before NASA was established. In the 1630’s Richard Boyle discovered Boyle’s law, describing the connection between temperature, pressure, and the volume of gas. Edmond Halley (who predicted the return of the comet named after him) discovered the relationship between barometric pressure and height above sea level, and built a diving bell. In 1662, Henshaw built his Domicilium, the first sealed chamber with valves to control the flow of air. This only increased/decreased air pressure, not oxygen.
In the 1830’s hyperbaric chambers became fashionable for medical treatment in France. In 1860 the first one in the Americas was built in Canada. In the 1930’s it was developed to treat for the first time decompression sickness (DCI), which is a frequent problem for divers. It’s basically the same problem as the CO poisoning- gas bubbles (Nitrogen) form in the blood stream and block it when divers return to the surface too quickly from a deep dive, as a result of the changes in atmospheric pressure. In the 1960’s doctors found that anaerobic infections were inhibited by hyperbaric therapy. Thereafter hyperbaric chambers were built in many hospitals in the US and abroad to treat a variety of infections and injuries.
It seems that the most logical explanation for Snow’s condition and experience in the coffin is that she was in a coma, and getting detoxed in a similar hyperbaric chamber. The common folk who weaved ‘folk stories’ didn’t comprehend the science being developed, and wrote whatever they witnessed with their own interpretation – that she was in ‘suspended animation’, and that she woke up after the piece of poison apple dislodged from her throat.
300 years later, both hyperbaric treatment and the suspended animation theory are topics for extensive space-age research. More about suspended animation in a future article. Meanwhile, there’s more to say about hyperbaric chambers.
The biggest benefit and the most common use for them is still treating DCI in divers, but in the early 2000’s NASA invested extensively in research and development of technologies for portable hyperbaric chambers. The plan was to be able to treat astronauts for DCI, which can occur in astronauts as they undergo pressure changes returning from spacewalks, and for high altitude sickness (AMS). Later, an almost exclusive license was granted in 2009 to a CA based company to use these technologies commercially.
Unfortunately sometimes the private sector is irresponsible. When companies tried to build such solutions for home use, and they were operated without know-how, sparks caused explosions that killed patients.
This doesn’t stop people from finding other uses for this technology. While there’s no scientific research to prove this works, hyperbaric treatment has been promoted as a treatment for autism, which many parents believe and try, for their autistic kids.
Most ridiculous about this is Hollywood. Michael Jackson was rumored to have used HBOT to stay young. Credible doctors agree that “If anything, oxygen accelerates aging.” Oxygen encourages the formation of free radicals that can cause cell damage over time. But the LA scene, which is very much about looks, is flooded with spas offering anti-aging treatment in hyperbaric chambers.
This is what folks in LA do to stay young:
In my opinion, the most exciting part of NASA’s research is the hydrostatic hyperbaric chamber (HHC), conceived as a safe, affordable means of making HBOT available in the developing world. Using Oxygen is expensive and too dangerous to implement in the developing world using standard equipment. HHC is different in that the majority of its volume is filled with water which is pressurized by oxygen being supplied in the portion of the chamber containing the patient’s head. This greatly reduces the amount of oxygen required, making the system more safe. It could possibly cure Buruli Ulcer, an infection that afflicts children in Africa.
The exciting part is that this results from research into the application of water-filled vessels to increase tolerance of acceleration forces. Which might be the future way to travel to the stars. Today’s fighter pilots and NASA astronauts go through training in a g-force centrifuge, to make sure they can withstand acceleration without passing out. They also wear g-pressure suits to help keep the blood in their head. Still they can withstand only a few g for only a few seconds. If reclining, “it’s possible for trained astronauts to tolerate forces in excess of 10g for a few minutes” (article by The Register).
But cargo only payloads can withstand 30g or more during launch. In the future, humans might be able to withstand greater forces if immersed in water. See this scientific research paper. Such travel was vividly described in Joe Haldeman’s 1974 classic, multiple award winning sci-fi novel The Forever War.
In the future all hands will get in their water tanks, as Capt. Picard says: “Engage!”