Mine rescue in Chile
NASA held a press conference today about their efforts to support the Chilean government as it works to sustain and rescue 33 trapped miners in a copper and gold mine in the Atacama desert in northern Chile.

NASA's long experience in training and planning for emergencies in human spaceflight along with its protection of humans in the hostile environment of space could have some direct benefits that will be useful to the rescue—especially when it comes to the medical and emotional needs of the miners.

Two physicians, a psychologist and an engineer, all from NASA who were freshly returned from the topside of the mine, took part in the conference, each remarking what an incredible job the Chilean miners and topside team have done and are continuing to do.

The team stressed the importance of keeping a routine down below, which includes work shifts, leisure time, scheduled meals, weekly contact with family members and times for light and darkness to create circadian rhythms for the miners as they wait for rescue that will likely be months away.

Incredibly, the miners had established a hierarchy among themselves in the 17 days before they were found. The Chilean officials are supporting that hierarchy and leadership, which the NASA team also commended.

NASA’s role there last week, and as this disaster continues, is simply an advisory role and to listen, as Dr. J.D. Polk, one of the physicians said, “colleague to colleague.”

Dr. Michael Duncan, the deputy chief medical officer and leader of the team, called this an “Apollo 13 on the ground”, and Dr. Polk confirmed that this operation is unprecedented in scope— “never have there been so many people trapped so deeply for so long.”

Dr. Al Holland, the psychologist, stressed that there will be good days and bad days and it is important to form a community both below ground and in the tent city where the miners’ families are waiting to reunite with loved ones.

He also stressed how important it is that the miners have contact with their families, but not too much. On a weekly basis, contact will give the miners something to look forward to, but were it to be on a more frequent basis, the family members may take on the miners’ problems and vice-versa, the miners taking on problems outside the mine.

One item that NASA helped the Chileans prepare for is when the miners come out of the mine. According to Dr. Duncan, the work will just be beginning when they come out—there will need to be lots of rehabilitation, recovery and reintroductions to family and society. The miners will have celebrity status in their country, and there will be lot of pressures on them from society and media wanting their time.

In the meantime, the miners will have to continue their meaningful work, both for their survival and emotional health. Supplies are sent down 24 hours a day in Palomas—torpedo-like containers four inches in diameter and two meters long. These are able to fit into the three six-inch diameter holes that are drilled to where the miners are, 2,300 feet below the surface. Food, water, medical supplies, games, books, sleeping cots and even an iPod that gets sent back up for recharging come to the miners through these palomas.

The miners will be removing tons of rubble in shifts over the next few months, assisting the various drills that will get them safely out of the mine. Making that work possibly the most meaningful of all.

Creative Commons image by desierto_atacama

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