NASA: We'll learn from trapped Chilean miners

Conditions in the mine are as extreme as they are for astronauts at the bottom of the ocean or in the Antarctic, NASA says.
Written by Deborah Gage, Contributor

The Chilean government asked for NASA's help on how to support the physical and mental health of the 33 miners, who've been trapped half a mile underground for over a month and may be stuck down there for several months more.

Four NASA employees -- including two medical doctors, a psychologist and a safety engineer -- just returned from three days at the mine and talked to reporters Tuesday about what they saw.

The miners did a lot to help themselves in the 17 days before they were located, according to Al Holland, a psychologist in the Johnson Space Center, and that's partly why they're still alive -- they divided themselves into groups, established a hierarchy, chose leaders, rationed food (a tablespoon of tuna, a biscuit and a little milk every other day) and divided up jobs.

They've also had excellent support from their families and other Chileans staying on top of the mine, who've also organized themselves and have put a lot of thought so far into the miners' care, Holland said. (CBS has a story about tensions arising among the miners' families here).

Still, this ordeal is far from over. Here's NASA's view of what's happened so far at the mine and what's likely to happen next.

- The Chileans are working on drilling three holes into the mine -- the two that are started are 26 inches in diameter. The third hole, which will be dug with a petroleum drilling rig and lined with a steel casing, will go fastest, but it can't be started for several weeks, until the drill rig is brought in and assembled at the mine.

- Food and supplies now are being passed through three, six-inch-wide holes that are lined with steel. Anything that will fit into a two-meter-long canister, which the Chileans call La Paloma, can go down -- medicine, cots, games, books, journals, an iPod, razors, toothbrushes and more. It takes 10 minutes to drop the canister and another 10 minutes to pull it up with a winch.

- NASA advised scheduling light (from the miners' helmets) and dark to establish normal sleep-wake cycles. They also advised against smoking, to protect the air quality of the dusty mine and prevent fires; and drinking, to preserve the miners' mental alertness and nutrition.

- Skin infections are a danger in the mine due to the heat and humidity -- the temperature is about 90 degrees, and the humidity is 90 percent. About half the miners have been given extra fluids for muscle wasting, which occurs during starvation and can cause kidney failure -- because the kidneys can't handle large proteins -- and all have been fed slowly with foods containing high amounts of phosphate, potassium and thiamine to prevent the cardiac arrest that can occur during starvation.

- Some miners had diabetes, hypertension or lung disease when they went into the mine and are being treated. "The miners are not astronauts, and were not preselected or screened to the depth that an astronaut would," Holland said. "Some folks just happened to be there that day (and went down in the mine)." NASA has discussed with the Chileans what would happen if a miner died.

- Despite the advantages of talking regularly to loved ones, NASA advised against too much communication, because families and supporters might try to take responsibility for problems they shouldn't. The miners need to figure out how to solve their own problems if they can.

"You need to form an underground community...organization and focus are a big part of normality," Holland said. "In order to establish and continue, you have to expect ups and downs, good and bad days, and allow that to happen and not make too big a deal of the small things. You have to support them to return back to a good day. There will be great challenges ahead -- they're now entering the period of the long run."

You can see the full NASA press conference here on NASA TV. Below is a story from CBS News this weekend that shows La Paloma in action:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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