NASA's Response to Mine Disaster Remembered
One year ago on Oct. 14, 2010, the last of the 33 men trapped since Aug. 5 in a Chilean copper mine approximately 2,300 below the Earth's surface was pulled to safety with help from an unlikely source - NASA.
It was a dire situation. While Chile's government agencies were devising rescue plans, they began seeking advice and information from other governments and organizations on how to assist the trapped miners. One of the organizations that responded to the call for assistance was NASA.
NASA quickly formed a team that included: Dr. Michael Duncan, Dr. J. D. Polk, both medical doctors, Dr. Albert W. Holland, a psychologist, and Clinton H. Cragg, an engineer. The team spent three days at the rescue site in Chile, assessing the parallels between the miner's plight and life in space.
Their advice ranged from warning rescuers that giving the starving men too much food too quickly could prove fatal to suggesting the miners wear sunglasses to protect their eyes when they surfaced after more than two months underground.
The NASA team also provided suggested design requirements to the Chilean government for the innovative rescue capsule that ultimately saved the lives of the miners.
The Chileans sought recommendations on the design of the capsule, the cramped tube nicknamed "Phoenix," that was used to pull the miners to the surface after 69 days.
The Americans, led by Cragg, consulted with some 20 NASA colleagues and came up with 50 separate design recommendations for the unique capsule system. Most of the recommendations were adopted.
NASA engineers advised, for instance, that exterior rollers would cushion the rescue capsule's ride up, reduce friction with tunnel walls and lessen the possibility the capsule would get stuck midway. The team also recommended supplementing the miners' oxygen in the escape vehicle.
"We were able to bring the knowledge we learned in space to the surface, and under the surface, to help people here on Earth," said Duncan, a NASA deputy chief medical officer who is currently assigned to the agency's Washington headquarters.
The NASA experts also offered a wealth of knowledge about what the miners and their families might face after the men came to the surface, and offered advice on how to help all of the parties readjust.
Last year the NASA team was invited to visit the White House and meet with President Obama.
Recently, the team was recognized for their international contribution with the awarding of the Service to America National Security and International Affairs Medal
. The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are presented annually by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service to celebrate excellence in the federal civil service.
The Smithsonian's Natural History Museum currently is showing an exhibit on the miner's rescue, which includes the Phoenix capsule used to transport the 33 trapped men safely to the surface.
Two members of the NASA engineering team that helped write design suggestions for the capsule, Michael Aguilar and Oscar Gonzales, have been invited to participate in the Smithsonian's Hispanic Heritage Family Day on Oct. 15 at the National Air and Space Museum, where they will discuss the rescue and NASA's role in it.