- Press Release
- Nov 28, 2022
NASA Shuttle Fuel Pump Technology Helps Children’s Hearts
The same technology that powers the Space Shuttle into
orbit may now help children, thanks to a tiny heart pump
recently approved for implantation in young, critically ill
The heart pump helps patients who need a new heart survive
until a donor heart is available. It is the first such device
approved for use in kids. It earned Food and Drug
Administration approval earlier this year for use in children
between the ages of five and 16 and was recently implanted
for the first time in a child.
Not much larger than a penlight battery, the pump is the
result of two decades of NASA collaboration with famed heart
surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. The collaboration began by
chance when a NASA engineer, the late David Saucier, an
expert in rocket engine fuel pumps, became DeBakey’s patient.
After recovering from heart surgery, Saucier began
discussions with a team of physicians at Houston’s Baylor
College of Medicine on how the pump that fuels the Shuttle
might be the key to an innovative, life-saving device. The
effort grew to involve several NASA propulsion engineers as
the team strove to miniaturize the pumping technology used in
the desk-sized Space Shuttle main engine turbopumps.
“I came to NASA in the early 1960s as we worked to land men
on the moon, and I never dreamed I would also become part of
an effort that could help save people’s lives,” said Bernard
Rosenbaum, a NASA propulsion engineer at Johnson Space Center
who worked with the group. “We were energized and excited to
do whatever it took to make it work,” he added.
The team worked for years to solve problems, such as
eliminating the blood clotting experienced with other heart
“NASA had the vision to understand the value of the pump and
championed the successful transfer of the technology to make
it a reality. Without NASA’s help, the pump would not exist,”
said Dallas Anderson, president and chief executive of
MicroMed Technology, Inc., that manufactures the pump.
The pump weighs less than four ounces and is about the size
of a pink-beveled eraser, small enough to fit a child. The
pump’s three main components minimize blood-flow turbulence,
guide direction and drive constant outflow. The only moving
part is a single-rotating impeller that propels blood in a
“The heart pump is a perfect blend of NASA engineering and
medicine,” Rosenbaum said. “The same laws of physics that
apply to building and flying a spacecraft apply to building
and operating a heart pump,” he added.
DeBakey noted that NASA’s exploration goals guide its
“NASA is engaged in very active research,” DeBakey said. “It
has as its goal to explore space. But to do so, you’ve got to
do all kinds of research — biological research, physical
research and so on. So it’s really a very, very intensive
research organization. And anytime you have any type of
intensive research organization or activity going on, new
knowledge is going to flow from it.”
In 1996, NASA granted exclusive rights under its patents for
the mechanical left-ventricular assist device (LVAD), now
called the MicroMed-DeBakey VAD, to Houston-based MicroMed.
The heart assist pump has been implanted in about 240 adult
patients, including 176 people involved in European trials
that began in 1998. U.S. trials began in 2000 and are still
under way to reach a planned total of 180 implants in this
country. Heart specialists have seen patients live with the
pump for as long as two years before receiving a donor heart.
The pump also has been credited with allowing enough time for
weakened hearts to repair themselves.
For more information about the heart pump and other NASA
spinoffs on the Internet, visit:
For more information about NASA on the Internet, visit: