NASA's expertise on long stints in space may help 33 trapped Chilean mine workers

Chile's 33 heroic mineworkers already survived 17 days trapped alone, with only two mouthfuls of tuna and a sip of milk every other day. But the coming weeks before they're rescued will be like a long haul on the ISS.

The Chilean government has appealed to NASA for advice on how to keep these miners healthy during the weeks — or possibly months — before they're rescued. So far, there's just a six-inch-wide bore hole connecting these miners to the outside world, and it's being reinforced with a metallic gel to reduce the risk of more cave-ins. Food and other supplies are being lowered down to them, but getting them out of the copper and gold mine will be a much tricker problem.

The miners haven't yet been told that it could be months before they're rescued, according to Chilean officials. A drilling machine is advancing at the rate of 20 meters per day, but the constant risk of cave-ins is complicating matters. So the Chilean government has also asked NASA for technology to help cope with long confinement with limited supplies, a situation similar to that of astronauts.

"NASA is prepared to provide such support as requested," a NASA spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle.

The biggest lessons that astronauts can teach the trapped miners, according to experts, include:

  • create an artificial day/night cycle to compensate for the fact that there's no day and night there. Create a structured schedule of mealtimes and sleep times
  • allow for private communication with loved ones
  • be honest with the miners about their situation, and let them know how long this is likely to take
  • keep them busy with lots of activities, including keeping track of their own vital signs. Treat them as "engineers and potential problem solvers," and send them miniature weighing machines and thermometers.

Of course, as one expert points out, these people didn't volunteer to spend long stretches of time in isolation together, and they don't have comfortable beds to retire to, among other differences. Says University of Pennsylvania professor David Dinges:

There is a great psychological gulf between those who elect to be isolated with many of the comforts of home, knowing they will always be able to get out, and those who are forced into isolation with few comforts and uncertainty regarding survival. Perceived control over the events of one's life is a major part of psychological survival.

Top photo by AP/Roberto Candia [Houston Chronicle and Guardian]