Drawing upon the lessons learned from decades of space missions, experts from NASA helped Chilean authorities work out ways to keep 33 trapped miners healthy and sane during 69 days of confinement. They also helped design the capsule that finally brought the miners to safety. Today, they're sharing in the celebration —and hoping that the Chileans will share their experiences with the space agency once the dust settles.
"It would be very interesting to hear from our colleagues down there what the problems were, what things about our suggestions worked or didn't work, what they learned in managing this group of people for this prolonged period of time. And I think it would be very valuable to be able to talk to the miners, if they were willing and the Chileans were wanting to invite us down," Michael Duncan, deputy chief medical officer in NASA's Space Life Science Directorate at Johnson Space Center, told me today.
"There were 33 of them, and on space station there's six. You wonder sometimes, do the same kinds of techniques that we teach our astronauts in a group of six apply to a group of 33, and vice versa," he mused. Although NASA has no immediate plans for putting 33 people at a time into orbit, the study of group dynamics in an enclosed space is clearly something that's relevant to operations on the International Space Station as well as future habitats beyond Earth.
Duncan was part of the NASA team that traveled to Chile in the wake of the Aug. 5 cave-in to advise the rescue team.
Among the suggestions: Have the miners boost their vitamin D intake to compensate for the lack of sunlight. Phase in an exercise program. Set up a lighted community area and a darkened sleeping area to keep the miners on a 24-hour biological cycle. Provide flu shots to boost the miners' weakened immune systems. Watch out for pneumonia and out-of-control skin irritation.
The advice even extended to the kind of socks the miners should wear while they were being hoisted up to the surface. "Support hosiery was used, as we do in astronauts, to compress the venous blood, making it push more into the central circulation — kind of like a G-suit would be used in a fighter aircraft, in order to keep the blood flowing to the brain," Duncan said.
"We were concerned about the risk to the miner, especially if the extraction time was going to be prolonged."
NASA also suggested that the miners load up on fluids before their extraction, just as returning astronauts do, to reduce the risk of dehydration once they're back on the surface.
"The physiology of returning from space and the physiology of a miner returning in this case are a little bit different," Duncan said, "but the point of the applications are the same — to maintain blood pressure and prevent fainting."
Now that the miners are back topside, Duncan expects that their biggest challenges will be to reintegrate with their families, regain their health — and cope with the crush of attention coming their way. He says the situation is similar to that faced by returning astronauts, who are briefed on how to deal with the news media in the course of a space mission and its aftermath.
He was glad to hear that the miners got a similar briefing on coping with sudden fame, and is looking forward to hearing how the rest of the story turns out.
NASA also would love to hear how the Phoenix capsule turned out. Clinton Cragg, a principal engineer for NASA's Engineering and Safety Center in Virginia, put together about 75 design recommendations for the Chilean Navy to consider when they built the 13-foot-long, 21.5-inch-wide, 924-pound contraption.
Each miner had to take a turn riding in the Phoenix as it was pulled up the 2,040-foot-long, 28-inch-wide shaft leading from the mine to the surface.
Cragg and his NASA colleagues pointed out that the capsule had to be built in such a way that a miner could get in by himself. "The rationale was that at some point, there's going to be one guy left," Cragg told me today.
The NASA engineers said the capsule had to align itself correctly in the shaft without hitting protrusions. And they said it should have an emergency oxygen tank, a two-way radio, Teflon rollers, fail-safe latches and an escape hatch in case the capsule got stuck.
"They accepted most of our suggestions," Cragg said.
Before joining NASA, Cragg spent 26 years as a Navy submariner, which gave him extra familiarity with the requirements for moving through tight quarters like the rescue shaft. It also gave him an instant "in" with one of the leaders of the Chilean rescue effort, who was also a former submarine commander. "We had a rapport right from the beginning," Cragg recalled.
One of these days, Cragg hopes to hear the details surrounding the repeated rise of the Phoenix — but he emphasizes that he doesn't expect design features from the torpedo-shaped capsule to show up in NASA spacecraft anytime soon.
"We didn't go down there to get data for our own program," Cragg said. "We went down there to help them. But I think the thing that this whole episode points out is that we have a lot of very talented people within NASA, and there's not a lot you can throw at them that they can't figure out."
Other reactions from the space agency struck a similar note of congratulations to the Chileans ... and pride over NASA's contribution:
• NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised Chile "for their steadfast determination" and thanked Americans who helped out, including the NASA team: "For decades, the people of this agency have learned to live, work and survive in the hostile environment of space. Our expertise in maintaining physiological and psychological health, and our technical and engineering experience in spacecraft design all proved to be valuable in a situation that is far from our traditional scope of work.
• Space station commander Doug Wheelock congratulated "the heroes both above and below the ground through this whole crisis," and tipped his space helmet to the Chilean miners. "From outer space, we just wanted to let you know how proud we are of you, and how much we admire your courage and tenacity," he said