Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to an incredible story. Two of our NASA Flight Medicine folks treated hundreds of us to a presentation about how they contributed to the Chilean miner rescue. It’s not often that a story like this comes up to showcase what NASA does and what NASA can do.
In case you’ve been in a cave, or should I say underground isolation, here’s the background in a nutshell. Since earlier this summer, 33 Chilean miners were trapped over 2000 feet underground. Chile has a rather elaborate mining history and capability. They have been working continuously in the mines for well over a hundred years, and they have had to dig ever deeper to reach the still valued gold, silver, and copper reserves. One might think that once you’ve had the entrance collapse, you’re done. Well, because of the depth and experience with mining, they had established a very elaborate network of underground refuges with survival supplies, and supported by a fairly robust variety of ventilation holes. The miners were alive with a hope of rescue.
The President of Chile did not hesitate to call for all the help and support the world could provide. Understanding the circumstances — extended isolation, limited quarters and supplies, harsh living conditions, the need for rapid technological application, etc. — NASA recognized that this was a challenge we could definitely contribute to. Our Space Medicine folks were dispatched to assist with the physical, mental, and technical challenges associated with the rescue.
Immediately upon establishing contact with the miners, there was a rush to make sure they had enough to eat and drink. For the first couple of weeks, they had been rationing 3 days worth of provisions and were near starvation. Our NASA docs immediately understood that too much food too fast could be fatal. Their metabolisms would not be able to absorb the carbohydrates, and they could potentially die. We were reminded of just this fact from history when our troops had liberated the death camps in Nazi Germany. American soldiers had rushed to provide chocolate bars and rations to the emaciated prisoners only to watch them perish as their bodies went into shock. Our flight medicine guys had long ago worked out routines for rationing and recovery in event that astronauts were left to survive for long periods in orbit until the next resupply flight could arrive. The Chilean miners were beneficiaries of this advice and as a result a strict diet was arranged for delivery through their 4 inch ventilation pipe. It worked and their health was managed well during the underground stay.
Habitation was a challenge. How do you make use of a few hundred square feet of space to keep 33 people occupied, exercised, and sane? Sounds a lot like a Space Station orbiting for years with just communication, work and exercise to occupy your time. A regimented series of exercises, diversionary activities, social interaction, and communication with the surface was developed to support what could be a very long stay.
And the mental and emotional aspects…. The miners were conditioned through counseling and emotional monitoring to have hope, patience, and a sense of connectedness with their families and the rest of the world. The families were accommodated right at the rescue site and counseled on the right tone and content of their communications with their loved ones below.
The technical aspects of the rescue pod were thoroughly addressed by our NASA emissaries. How do you stand scrunched up for nearly an hour, sensory deprived, while you are pulled through a pitch black hole. Think of standing in a too small coffin that has been nailed shut for just 5 minutes….. Now multiply that by about 10…. Get the picture. There were challenges of medication, mental preparation, remote health monitoring, and maintenance of the physiological environment…. in a too small coffin. Who does that sort of stuff?
Probably the most amazing aspect of the story from a NASA employee’s perspective…. In the first few anxious weeks while the rescue effort was being formulated, the miners families were huddled in a terrified vigil at the surface. The Chilean government announced that an agreement had been rapidly arranged for NASA to assist with the rescue. Telling us the story, Dr. JD Polk paused, overcome with emotion, as he recounted the reaction of the families upon their arrival. Children were crying tears of joy as they saw NASA coming to save their loved ones. Dr. Polk said, as a parent, there is no value you can put on something like that….. Who else gets that kind of reaction?
In the cold hard business vernacular it’s called Brand Name Recognition. The NASA brand means something to the rest of the world, particularly in the Chilean mountains where 33 people are alive and with their families today because of their caring government and NASA’s human spaceflight science and technology.
The NASA political arm-wrestling over the last few months seems hopelessly petty after that kind of story. My pride has been restored just a little bit. My hope has been restored a lot.