Astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, uses a scoop in making a trench in the lunar soil during Apollo 15 extravehicular activity (EVA). Irwin had a heart attack while orbiting the moon, which made NASA realize that they needed a better health monitoring system.
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Astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, uses a scoop in making a trench in the lunar soil during Apollo 15 extravehicular activity (EVA). Irwin had a heart attack while orbiting the moon, which made NASA realize that they needed a better health monitoring system.
Credit: NASA/Flickr Commons

What Alexa can learn from a heart attack on the moon

Minutes after the Apollo 15 lunar module blasted off the surface of the moon, Astronaut James Irwin’s heart began to stutter.

Down at Mission Control, Dr. Charles Berry watched the astronaut’s EKG. He saw a series of rapid double beats with long pauses in between.

If Irwin was on Earth, Dr. Berry said, “I’d have him in ICU being treated for a heart attack.”

In the moment, though, they couldn’t do anything but watch. Even now, they’re not sure what was happening.

When Irwin came home, they put him through every test they could imagine, but his heart was completely normal.

A few months later, though, he had another heart attack.

Events like this would lead NASA to push for better ways to monitor the health of its astronauts. This was the NASA DeVon Griffin joined in 1991.

Griffin was part of a team working on an electrocardiogram reader that would more accurately monitor an astronaut’s risk of heart attack. The equipment had to perform flawlessly through a variety of tasks, like moving crates of rocks, drilling, and driving the moon rover.

As the cost estimates rose, someone asked a question that changed everything.

Do we really need this? If the EKG reader went down, would we cancel a spacewalk?

The answer was no.

NASA decided to abandon the expensive project, Griffin said.

A NASA flight manager watches the Apollo 15 astronauts as they work on the moon's surface.
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A NASA flight manager watches the Apollo 15 astronauts as they work on the moon's surface.
Credit: NASA »


Eventually, NASA's thinking on medical data evolved. Today, the agency faces the same problem we earthlings face — or at least those of us strapped up to Fitbits.

The problem is no longer that we don't have enough data. We can log our workouts, measure every calorie we eat, and track our heart activity while we sleep.

But at the end of the day, looking at that stream of data, we're no better off than NASA's flight surgeons, helplessly watching the EKG readout from their astronaut.

We need ways to sift through the data and take away useful recommendations.

Lately, NASA's been working on an intelligent "virtual agent" that can live in a spacesuit, kind of like Alexa "lives" in an Echo smart speaker. This agent knows the astronauts’ medical profile. It knows what they’re supposed to do on a spacewalk.

If connection to the flight surgeon is lost, the agent can problem solve and offer advice. It might say, “You’re burning through your oxygen too quickly. Maybe take it easy, or move on to the next task, which is more important. Or drink something.”

Compare that functionality to Alexa. Alexa's good at retrieving information, but quickly gets confused as tasks get more complex.

Amazon wants to help us manage our health data. Signs suggest it's currently involved in a race to dominate that field against Apple and Google, much as the US once raced Russia into space and to the moon.

A panorama of the lunar landscape taken by astronaut James Irwin.
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A panorama of the lunar landscape taken by astronaut James Irwin.
Credit: NASA »

To win that race, Amazon needs to bring more power to Alexa.

Right now, Alexa seems to be falling behind even simple fitness tracking apps, which increasingly offer personalized, data-driven fitness advice for a monthly fee.

Recently, Amazon added "hunches" and "did you mean" to Alexa's skillset — rudimentary problem solving abilities that inch Alexa closer to something that could pass for intelligence.

Jeff Bezos, who got the idea for Alexa from Star Trek's computer, may again be looking up for inspiration from space.

Recently, Amazon graduated a startup called Ejenta from its Alexa Accelerator program. Their business is built around bringing NASA's intelligent, medically-savvy virtual agent to the rest of us on earth.

Hear more about what Alexa can learn from a heart attack on the moon by listening to the latest episode of Primed.

Music this episode includes Ripples on an Evaporated Lake by Raymond Scott.

Additional sources include: "Flight: My Life in Mission Control" by Chris Kraft and "What happens if you have a heart attack on the moon?" By Dennis E Powell.