Can NASA Help Trapped Chilean Miners?

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The situation is extreme to say the least: 33 miners are trapped in a copper mine 2,300 ft underground in Copiapó, Chile.

They all survived and were located after an access tunnel collapsed on August 5, and rescuers are currently pushing ahead with drilling another tunnel to free them. Unfortunately, it could take months before the shaft is bored.

Needless to say, this equates to extreme physical and psychological stresses on the men occupying the hot and uncomfortable tunnel.

WATCH VIDEO: Scientists Seek Ban on Mountaintop Mining.

To help mitigate the worst psychological damage of being cooped up deep underground for months, NASA is sharing its expertise with Chilean officials who are providing round-the-clock support for the miners on the surface.

However, one study currently under the media spotlight looked into the morale of space station astronauts, suggesting the most trying time for the Chilean miners will be within the next couple of months.

This study was carried out by Jack Stuster of Anacapa Sciences in Santa Barbara, Calif., where thousands of International Space Station (ISS) journal entries were analyzed and flagged as “positive,” “negative” or “neutral.” The most negative journal entries seemed to occur during the third-quarter of space missions, coinciding with other issues such as interpersonal and communication problems.

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In contrast, other ISS and Russian Mir studies found no such dip in morale at the 3/4 mark of missions.

Regardless of the mixed results from these space research studies, as reported by our very own Larry O’Hanlon today, the experiences of astronauts may not be the best comparison with the trapped miners after all.

“(Astronauts, sailors and polar researchers) go into it voluntarily,” said psychologist and isolation researcher Lawrence Palinkas of the University of Southern California. “They know their isolation will come to an end. These miners are not sure about that.”

Also, drawing comparisons with the volunteers currently locked inside the Mars 500 experiment in Russia is a poor equivalent to what the miners are going though.

“The drawback is that these people know it’s an experiment,” Palinkas told Discovery News. “They can say ‘I’m done now, so I want to go up.’”

A better analogy might be with combat soldiers on extended duty. Space station astronauts have a 6 month voluntary tour of duty that, although dangerous and stressful in its own way, doesn’t compare to the psychological stress of a war zone.

“When you boil it down to the psychological level, there is physical misery, separation (from families), uncertainty and ambiguity about the future,” explained U.S. Army Col. Tom Kolditz of Westpoint.

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Many psychological studies have been carried out on soldiers, so there are plenty of resources available for the on-site support team to refer to.

However, one reason why some ISS and Mir studies haven’t seen similar trends in morale as Stuster’s research could be that all astronauts are in constant communication with the ground to ensure they stay busy, on schedule and in their natural rhythm.

“We didn’t find that on Mir or the ISS, and it was mainly because of great support the guys got from the ground, both in the US and Russia,” said Nick Kanas of the University of California, San Francisco, who helped lead earlier studies.

Learning from NASA’s experience, the key thing to maintain the mental health of the trapped miners will be to keep them occupied, even though they are trapped in such mundane conditions. Morale needs to be bolstered, and good communication with the ground crews — with familiar colleagues relaying information — will help maintain trust.

Sending NASA experts to Chile will be of huge benefit to ensure the health of the miners, but don’t forget the experiences of the military. Every facet of human experience needs to be drawn upon to ensure a successful conclusion to this unprecedented and harrowing time for the men nearly half-a-mile underground.

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