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NASA Helps Design Rescue Capsule for Chilean Miners

NASA Helps Design Rescue Capsule for Chilean Miners

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On October 13, 2010, 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped by a cave-in 2,300 feet underground for more than two months are rescued. When the first miner reaches the surface, NASA engineer Clint Cragg comments on the rescue capsule, which NASA helped design.


Levine took on the challenge and spent the next 24 hours reading official reports about the gas environment in mines all over the world. His report to NASA outlined the concentration of gases and concluded that carrying oxygen was not necessary. In fact, it could be a detriment to the safety of the trapped miners.

The NASA engineers designed the escape capsule over the next week, and it was built by the Chilean Navy. Private donations covered about a third of the $20 million cost of the rescue, the rest was picked up by the mine owners and the Chilean government.

The miners, all of whom survived their ordeal in a safe room stocked with emergency supplies, were in good medical condition when they returned to the surface after their ordeal.

Apparently, the Chileans are aware of the contribution NASA made to the rescue of the trapped miners. When the Colchagua Museum director learned about the Levines visit to the museum, he alerted the local press to photograph them with the Phoenix 2 escape capsule.

NASA Helps Design Rescue Capsule for Chilean Miners - HISTORY

NASA Oral History Project: Chilean Miners Rescue

A section of a mine collapsed near the town of Copiapó, Chile, on August 5, 2010, trapping 33 miners 2,300 feet below the Earth's surface. Seventeen days passed before their location was found.

The Chilean government requested technical advice from NASA based on the agency's long experience in protecting humans in the hostile environment of space. A team of four NASA experts were on the scene from August 30 through September 5, 2010. While there, they consulted with a number of organizations in Chile, including the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Mining, the Chilean Navy and the Chilean Space Agency, and talked with those at the site of the mining accident.

NASA's initial support included recommendations on medical care, nutrition, and psychological support. The support was broadened to include recommendations on the design of a Chilean vehicle used to extract the miners. Consultations continued between members of the NASA team and Chilean government officials until the miners were rescued, October 13, 2010.

Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of International and Interagency Relations, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC

Principal Engineer , NASA Engineering and Safety Center, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia

More transcripts are available from the alphabetical list above or from the complete list of participants.

Please note: Links on the following pages are active once the Oral History transcript is archived in the JSC History Collection.

To view the newest additions to the JSC History Collection, visit the "What's New" announcement.

How 'Teaming' Saved 33 Lives in the Chilean Mining Disaster

Workers test the NASA-engineered capsule used to lift trapped miners to the surface. Hugo Infante/Government of Chile via Wikimedia Commons

(Editor's Note: Amy Edmondson advises managers to think of teams as a verb, "teaming," which means to proactively build and develop the team even as a project is in process. Teaming, she says, is essential to organizational learning. In her new book Extreme Teaming: Lessons in Complex, Cross-Sector Leadership, Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, illustrates the advantages of teaming using a real-world example: the 2010 mine collapse in Chile that trapped 33 workers some 2,300 feet underground for 69 days. Here's Emondson's account.)

The success of the now legendary mining rescue in Chile in 2010, while widely covered in the news and immortalized in a major Hollywood film, is not widely understood. We offer the rescue as an extraordinary example of extreme teaming, to illustrate the enormous potential of diverse experts coming together to innovate to overcome a nearly impossible challenge. The case illustrates the centrality of diverse perspectives in producing innovation, as well as the importance of leadership in making it happen.

Although mining accidents often present immense hurdles that make rescue unlikely, the situation at Chile’s San Jose copper mine that began on August 5, 2010 was unprecedented on several dimensions. The most daunting of these was the extraordinary depth 700 meters below ground at which the miners were trapped in the aftermath of an explosion that left half a million tons of rock blocking the mine's entrance. The number of miners trapped (33), the hardness of the rock, the instability of the land, and the complete inadequacy of provisions for the trapped men (enough food for two men for 10 days) combined to make the possibility of rescue appear all but impossible to consulted experts. A mining rescue in the United States just a few years earlier, in which nine men were trapped 240 feet below ground, had been considered at the time a remarkable feat.

In Chile, early estimates of the possibility of finding anyone alive—put at 10%—diminished sharply two days later when rescue workers narrowly escaped the secondary collapse of a ventilation shaft, taking away the initial best option for extracting the miners. At that point, no expert considered rescue of the 33 men a reasonable possibility. Nonetheless, within 70 days all of them would be alive and reunited with their families.

This outcome was the result of an extraordinary cross-industry teaming effort by hundreds of individuals spanning physical, organizational, cultural, geographic, and professional boundaries. Engineers, geologists, drilling specialists, and more came together from different organizations, sectors, and nations to work on the immensely challenging technical problem of locating, reaching, and extracting the trapped miners. Senior leaders in the Chilean government provided resources to support the on-site efforts.

How senior leadership triggered extreme teaming

In Santiago, Chile’s capital city, President Piæera and Laurence Golborne, the Minister of Mining, met on the morning of August 6, 2010. Piæera then sent Golborne to the mine with a mandate to do whatever possible to bring the miners home, sparing no expense. Golborne and Piæera quickly reached out to their networks of colleagues around the world. As the president put it, “We were humble enough to ask for help” (Robbins, 2007).

Michael Duncan, a deputy chief medical officer with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), reported that the Chilean officials said, “Let’s try to identify who the experts are in the field let’s get some consultants in here that can give us the best information possible.” Duncan brought experience with long space flights to help solve concerns related to the miners’ physical and psychological survival in their small quarters. NASA engineers played a crucial role in the design of the escape capsule that would be used in the final stage of the rescue to extract the miners from the refuge.

The Chilean Carabineros Special Operations Group—an elite Chilean police unit for rescue operations—had arrived a few hours after the first collapse. Yet their initial attempt at rescue had triggered that devastating secondary shaft collapse.

As news of a mine cave-in spread, family members, emergency response teams, rescue workers, and reporters poured into the vicinity. Meanwhile, the Chilean mining community dispatched experts, drilling machines, and bulldozers. At the request of President Pinera, Codelco, the state-owned company, sent a senior mining engineer to lead the effort Andre Sougarret, known for his engineering prowess, calm composure and ease with people, brought extraordinary technical and leadership competence to the project.

Parallel teaming efforts

Sougarret formed three teams to oversee different aspects of the operation. One searched for the men, poking drill holes deep into the earth in the hopes of hearing sounds to indicate that the men were alive. Another worked on how to keep them alive if found, and a third brainstormed solutions for how to extract them from the refuge. The first team came up with four possible rescue strategies. The most obvious through the ventilation shaft, was quickly rendered impossible. The second strategy, drilling a new mine ramp, also soon proved impossible as the instability of the rock was discovered. The third, tunneling from an adjacent mine a mile away, would have taken 8 months and was thus soon excluded.

The only hope left was the last strategy—drilling a series of holes at various angles to try to locate the refuge.

The extreme depth of the refuge, along with its small size, made the problem of location staggeringly difficult. With the drills’ limited precision, the odds of hitting the refuge with each laborious drilling trial were about one in eighty. Even that was optimistic, because the location of the refuge was imprecisely known. Maps of the tunnels had not been updated in years. Additional technical challenges disallowed drilling straight down from the top of the mine, further exacerbating the drilling accuracy problem.

Rescuers soon divided into subteams to experiment with different strategies for drilling holes. More often than not, these teams failed to achieve their desired goals in any individual drilling attempt, but they soon learned to celebrate the valuable information each attempt provided, such as revealing features of the rock, to inform future action. For instance, the drillers and geologists discovered that fallen rock had trapped water and sedimentary rocks, increasing drill deviations and further exacerbating the odds of reaching the refuge in time. This was the kind of technical detail that engineers had to quickly incorporate into their plans, which shifted rapidly with each passing day.

One dramatic change to procedure was the discovery and use of frequent, short action-assessment cycles. In normal drilling operations, precision was measured after a hole was completely drilled. Here, in contrast, drillers realized that to hit the refuge, they would have to make measurements every few hours and promptly abandon holes that deviated too much, discouraging as that might be. As they learned more about the search challenge, the odds of success diminished further, with one driller putting it at less than 1%.

In this extreme story, different clusters of experts came up with remarkably complementary pieces of an ultimately viable complex solution. Of course this didn’t happen by accident, but rather was enabled by a particular type of leadership. For example, a Chilean geologist named Felipe Matthews brought a unique technology for measuring drilling with high precision that he had recently developed. Matthews came to the site, and, working with several other strangers, discovered that his measurements were inconsistent with those of other groups a rapidly improvised set of experiments showed that his equipment was most accurate. Matthews was then put in charge of measuring drilling efforts going forward. In this way, roles emerged and shifted as the teaming went on.

Leaders of different subgroupings met routinely every morning and called for additional quick meetings on an as-needed basis. They developed a protocol for transitioning between day and night drill shifts and for routine maintenance of machinery “We structured, structured, structured all aspects of execution.” As drill attempts continued to fail, one after another, Sougarret communicated gracefully with the families. Despite these failures, Sougarret and his new colleagues persevered.

A NASA engineer who went to Chile in late August teamed up with engineers in the Chilean navy to design the rescue capsule, after first going back to the United States to pull together a group of 20 NASA engineers. The engineers developed a twelve-page list of requirements, used by the Chilean navy in the final design for the capsule, called the Fenix. The Fenix interior, just large enough to hold a person, was equipped with a microphone, oxygen, and spring-loaded wheels to roll smoothly against the rock walls.

On October 13, 2010, the Fenix started its life-saving runs to bring miners one by one through the 15-minute journey to safety. Over the next two days, miners were hauled up one by one in the 28-inch-wide escape capsule painted with the red, white, and blue of the Chilean flag. After a few minutes to hug relatives, each was taken for medical evaluation. The resulting fervor of the national and even global celebration cannot be underestimated.

How leadership enables extreme teaming

The Chilean rescue presents a superb example of teaming at its best.

Reflecting on the situation, one readily comprehends that a top-down, command-and-control approach would have failed to achieve this stunning outcome. No one person, or even one leadership team, or one organization or agency, could have successfully innovated to solve this problem.

It’s also clear that simply encouraging everyone to try anything they wanted could have led to chaos or harm. It required extreme teaming. Facing the unprecedented nature of the disaster, multiple temporary, constantly shifting groups of people working separately on different types of problems, and coordinating across groups, as needed, was the only viable approach. These separate efforts managerial and technical were intensely focused.

This approach necessitated progressive experimentation, a kind of rapid-cycle learning. Diverse technical experts worked collaboratively to design, test, modify, and abandon options, over and over again, until they got it right. They organized quickly to design and experiment with various solutions, and just as quickly admitted when these had failed. They willingly changed course based on feedback some obvious (the collapse of the ventilation shaft), some subtle (being told that their measurements were inaccurate by Matthews intruding mid-process with a new technology).

Perhaps most important, the engineers did not take repeated failure as evidence that a successful rescue was impossible. Unfortunately, extreme teaming involves risk. And risk necessarily brings both success and failure. Fortunately, there is nearly always much to be learned from the failures to inform next steps.

Finally, the support of senior leadership not just the technical leadership on the front lines of innovation was a critical input to the success of this extreme teaming process. Leadership’s commitment to the initiative gave others motivation and the protection they needed to take technical and interpersonal risks that are integral to extreme teaming. This turns out to be important in many business organizations where extreme teaming is employed by diverse technical experts to innovate.

As this example demonstrates, extreme teaming can produce awe-inspiring results. The problem is that its success can be too easily thwarted by communication failures at the boundaries between professions, organizations, and industries. As individuals bring diverse expertise, skills, perspectives, and goals together in unique configurations to accomplish challenging goals, they must overcome subtle and not-so-subtle challenges of communicating across boundaries. Some boundaries are obvious being in different countries with different time zones, for example. Others are subtle, such as when two engineers working for the same company in different facilities unknowingly bring different taken-for-granted assumptions about how to carry out this or that technical procedure to collaboration.

Reprinted by permission of Emerald Publishing Ltd. Excerpted from Extreme Teaming: Lessons in Complex, Cross-Sector Leadership. Copyright 2017 Amy Edmondson. All rights reserved.

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NASA Helps Design Rescue Capsule for Chilean Miners - HISTORY

Wright: Today is June 23, 2011. This oral history is being conducted with Clint Cragg in Hampton, Virginia, for the NASA Headquarters History Office. This interview is part of a series to capture knowledge about NASA’s participation in the recent historic rescue of 33 Chilean miners. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. Mr. Cragg works as a principal engineer for the NASA Engineering and Safety Center located at the NASA Langley Research Center. We are in his office today for this interview.

Thanks again for taking time out of your schedule for us.

Cragg: You’re welcome.

Wright: You were one of four members of the NASA team who traveled August 30, 2010 to assist the country of Chile in the safe return of the miners who were trapped underground when a section of their copper and gold mine collapsed. Explain how you first became involved with this rescue effort.

Cragg: I don’t know exactly precisely how the request came to the United States, but I did hear that the deputy minister of foreign affairs in Chile came to our embassy shortly after the miners were found alive, asking for help from the United States. This help was apparently nonspecific, so the embassy passed that back to [the Department of] State, and somehow it got to NASA.

Since the NESC [NASA Engineering and Safety Center] works directly for the chief engineer, we got asked to do some what-ifs—how could we as engineers perhaps support these individuals and allow them to survive for what at the time was going to be several months below ground. I was asked by my boss, Ralph [R.] Roe [Jr.], to put together a team and just do these what-ifs. We spent a couple of days just thinking about what we could do to help these people and wrote a little paper and passed it up to [NASA] Headquarters [Washington, D.C.], and that was that.

About that same time, so I understand now, the Chilean minister of health was opining in Chile that he’d like NASA’s help specifically because we have experience in helping people survive in hazardous environments. What he wanted was medical and psychological support. When that happened Mike [James Michael] Duncan, then at JSC, got the call and ended up talking to the minister of health (who was at the mine) a couple of times. That was kind of choppy, as I understand, so it was mutually agreed that we’d send some people down for a site survey. Headquarters picked two doctors, Mike Duncan and J.D. [James D.] Polk, and Al [Albert W.] Holland, the psychologist, to go down. Because I had led this earlier team I was asked to go, specifically to support the doctors. If there was any type of technology or thing that they needed, I could be down there to assess that and reach back to the United States, to members of the NESC, that perhaps we could get what the doctors were looking for. That’s how I got involved.

Wright: This initial paper that you and your team wrote, what information was given to you so that you could develop this paper?

Cragg: We had no information, nothing. One of our guys—we knew it was hot down in the mine so he did some experiments about freezing water bottles and checking to see how long it would take to get down and whether or not they’d still be frozen. I mean, just kind of crazy stuff. We really didn’t have any information, so we were kind of shooting in the dark. I don’t know whatever came of that particular list of recommendations, but the longer list of things for the rescue capsule came later.

Wright: Within two weeks after the miners were trapped, you were there. Talk about the trip and how that came together.

Cragg: That’s the interesting part. I kid Mike Duncan about Al [Albert] Condes, because Al wanted us to all arrive in Chile at the same time. Of course everybody else was in Houston, so I wanted to go directly from here to Atlanta [Georgia], to Santiago [Chile]. Al goes, “No, we want you to arrive there.” And I said, “Okay Al, you owe me one for this.” So I had to fly Charlotte [North Carolina] to Houston, Houston to Lima [Peru], and Lima to Santiago. It was a long flight.

We got into Santiago and were met by some embassy employees and ushered into a VIP [very important person] section at the airport. I remember the embassy person looking at me and she said, “Welcome to the whirlwind.”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

She goes, “You guys are rock stars down here.” I was still somewhat clueless. I’d heard about this back in the United States, but I didn’t realize how big a story it was in Chile. There was a bunch of press hanging outside this VIP area at the airport when we left. We didn’t talk to them, but our Chilean escort for the Chilean Space Agency [Agencia Chilena del Espacio] did. We had to wait for him, but that was okay.

We went down to the hotel and checked in, and we had a couple hours to shower and then we went off to a number of meetings that first day, and gosh, we met a lot of people. We met Laurence [N.] Golborne [Riveros], the minister of mining, and Jaime [J.] Mañalich [Muxi], who was the minister of health, and the head of the Chilean Space Agency. But the real important meetings were with the two ministers because we got the background on what was going on at the mine site, and the doctors got the medical history of all the trapped miners. We got a synopsis of what was going on.

The next morning we flew up to the town of Copiapó, which is the capital of the Atacama region. We arrived there and threw our stuff in the hotel. This town is set up like a normal Spanish colonial town with a big plaza in the center, and our hotel was on the plaza. It turns out right across the plaza was the local government, so we went over there and met the local governor [Ximena Matas Quilodrán] and talked to her for a while. Then we went out to the mine site, and we spent the next three days at the mine site.

Wright: What were your impressions when you first arrived at the site?

Cragg: How austere it was. It was quite a drive, about an hour from Copiapó. There was really little or no vegetation, except apparently it had just rained there a week before. It only rains once a decade, and when it does these desert flowers bloom. They’re spaced pretty far away, but if you look at the hills and the desert at an angle, you can see these colors, and we saw a little bit of that.

I remember thinking as we got to this place—and this mine had been around since the 1880s—who would have gone this far out to find this mine? Back then it was pretty far away from everywhere. That was my first impression. Then as we got further into the actual mine itself, it was very interesting to see how many people were there. There were a number of security barricades that we had to go through, a lot of soldiers, and we finally got escorted past the news people, past the family members, into the inner sanctum there, and were allowed to put our stuff in the trailer, and then we were introduced to the key people at the mine site.

They split us up with our counterparts, so Mike and J.D. went with Dr. [Jorge] Díaz, and Al Holland went with the Chilean psychologist, whose name was Alberto [Iturra]. The two Als, the one that speaks English and the one that doesn’t. I went with one of Codelco’s [Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile], the state [copper] mining company, engineers, and got to go see the drill rigs and how they were resupplying the miners. Right from the get-go my main job of watching out for the doctors was circumvented by the Chileans, but that was okay. As it turns out, the doctors didn’t really need any technology. They were really looking from their own background on how they deal with issues in space and looking for similarities, so my time was spent, all three days, with these engineers.

I got to meet André Sougarret [Larroquette], who was the head engineer. He was personally selected by the president of Chile, and he also worked for Codelco, to head up this relief effort. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak any English, but his deputy spoke pretty good English so I hung around with him a lot, just seeing how they were conducting resupply operations and what kind of things they were sending down and what the plans for the future were. Around the same time I got to speak to the geologist there on the site about what his thoughts on the mine were.

One of the other impressions I had pretty early on—there was a significant Chilean navy presence there, a lot of enlisted guys. One of the key doctors, who was also working with our doctors, was a submarine-qualified officer who spoke good English. Apparently he’d gone to high school in California.

I also got to meet another individual, Renato Navarro, who was an ex-submarine captain. He had been asked to come up there early on because they wanted his opinion based on being at sea, under the water for a long time, how they could support these miners. I suppose after his suggestions were taken, they felt that he was a pretty squared-away guy. They kept him on, at least initially, as the unofficial head of the support operations. He and I hit it off pretty well, me being an ex-captain myself.

It was through him that I got to meet some more navy guys who were the Chilean navy engineers. We were talking about how they were going to get these guys out, and I came to understand that there were probably four or five different companies or entities that had been asked to submit designs for whatever capsule was going to be used to extract these guys. I didn’t talk to any of the other companies, but this Chilean naval engineer group from one of their shipyards was one of these groups. I started asking them questions about the design and how they were going to do this and what kind of requirements they had been told this thing ought to be able to perform, and there wasn’t much information that they were supplied with. They were told that the max [maximum] diameter of this device can only be this big, it can only be this tall, and there was no limit on weight. There was no other guidance from anybody at the mine site.

It was pretty interesting to be there because there was a lot of people there and everybody seemed to be busy and doing something. There was a real team effort, and it was neat to be a part of that. But the problem with that was, as I also found out, that the organization there, I thought, needed some tweaking. Getting back to these naval engineers, there was nobody that told them what ought to be in this thing. They seemed like a nice group, and they showed me what one of their original designs was. It looked nothing like what ended up happening, but that’s okay.

At the end of the three days, the four of us gave an out-brief to the minister of health who was there. The other leadership at the mine, which included the psychologist, the doctors, the Codelco engineers, and the governor of the region—we spent two or three hours, I suppose, giving them an out-brief on what we had found. That was broken up and we had to go to a news conference in the middle of that, that was kind of interesting.

One of the things I suggested to the minister of health was about this issue of the rescue capsule. I said, “You know, there’s other things that you probably ought to consider.” We had talked to people at the mine site and we sort of did a survey, how long do you think this extraction is going to take once they get down to these miners? We heard anywhere between one and four hours, so taking the outside guess of four hours, to be trapped in some kind of tube for four hours, there ought to be a little something else in this design. I told the minister of health that NASA does this all the time, we write requirements for all sorts of stuff, and that we could help them flesh out some of these requirements and provide them some suggested design requirements. That was really one of my main suggestions. I also talked about some streamlining that could be done in the organization there, and just some other sort of odds and ends.

Wright: How was that received, being an outsider making these suggestions to the government?

Cragg: You know, that’s a good question. I’ve been to South America before and I really like it there, but many of the countries are very proud, and rightly so, but sometimes when you’re too proud you don’t want any outside help. I think to the credit of the Chileans that when they found themselves in this situation they were not too proud to ask for help, and it wasn’t just NASA they asked. They had an American drilling team down there for Plan B, they had a Canadian team for Plan C. I know they had help from the Australians and the South Africans and Germans, so they were spreading a wide net. When we ended our briefing there most of the people in the room were writing very feverishly, so I think they wanted the advice. Particularly from what the doctors and Al Holland told them, I understand that they followed that advice almost to the letter.

Wright: Before we talk about the advice that you gave them, tell me about the news conference that you said was a little bit interesting.

Cragg: The first day we were there in Santiago we were in this conference room with the ministers, and they said, “The press is here.” This conference room was—gosh, it might have been 60 feet long, 20 feet wide, and all of sudden the doors open and it was like the paparazzi. It must have been a hundred people come in with cameras and set up, and they wanted to talk to us and why we’re here. The only guy who spoke was Mike Duncan, who, by the way, is very good with the press. He’s very eloquent.

One of the questions the press asked was, “Dr. Duncan, we understand that the miners have asked for beer. What do you say about that?” Mike’s response was, “Well, I don’t think I’d recommend it at this point.” The next day we saw the headlines that said “NASA says no to booze and cigarettes.” That was our first real press conference.

Daily at the mine site, Andre Sougarret, the head engineer, and the governor of the region stood at the edge of the enclosure at the mine speaking over these barricades to throngs of press. Mike Duncan usually talked at that time, too, but the one that you just asked about on the last night was a press conference just for us. There were a lot of people there, it was crowded and a lot of questions, but other than that it was just like the one before it.

Wright: You returned home with a whole lot more information about the situation than what you had before you left. Explain how you took that information and helped the Chilean government come up with some guidelines.

Cragg: I understood the topography, I understood the people, I understood what the problems were, I understood how they were going to move this capsule in and out, and I understood from our doctors some of the things that they considered important that this thing ought to have. Just having a lay of the land helped a lot. In the submarine force, one of the things I was taught early as a young officer is if there’s a problem in the ship, once you physically go look at the machine or whatever it is that’s causing the problem, you have a much better feel for what the issues are. I did that as a captain all the time, so in this case, just having been there and seeing the people that were going to work this, I think I had a pretty good appreciation for what exactly they needed.

Wright: You came back and you assembled a team. Tell me how you put that word out to the people that you needed to have help.

Cragg: When I was down there they had cell [mobile cellular] phone signals, so I had my [Apple] iPhone [internet-enabled phone] and was pecking away at that back to my boss here. After I’d talked to these Chilean navy engineers I sent him a note saying, “This looks like someplace that we can really help for these suggested design requirements.” He sent me back a note saying, “That’s a good idea. Why don’t you, when you get back, get with all the Tech [Technical] Fellows”—we have a number of Tech Fellows at the NESC—“and see what you can come up with.” That gave me top cover from my boss. The minister of mining, when I told him this that last night, didn’t say yes or no. He came and talked to me later about my ideas and the organization there, but he didn’t say yes or no about whether he wanted these requirements or not.

But after I got back to the States—we got back on a Sunday, and it was Labor Day the next day. On Sunday or Monday I got a note via my submarine friend down there that the minister had sent to him saying that he wanted this list. On Labor Day I was working at home, and I sent a note out with all the issues to all the Tech Fellows saying that we need to meet on Tuesday and for the next several days in succession to come up with this. That went pretty well.

The first day we came back in we had a telecom [telecommunications conference], probably nine or ten in the morning. I had my boss, Ralph Roe, come, and all the Tech Fellows online were here. There’s a bunch of them who were actually here for some other reason, and so a bunch of them were in the room. I asked Ralph to tell them that this was important, that they needed to give their attention to this.

Wright: Can you share quickly about what their purpose is, why you have Tech Fellows that are involved with the NESC?

Cragg: The Tech Fellows, to me, they’re the bedrock of the organization. There is a Tech Fellow for a number of different disciplines like materials and nondestructive evaluation, human factors, passive thermal power, stuff like that. These people have gone out and established their technical discipline teams, and many of them know other like-minded engineers across the agency and people in academia and industry. All of them have put together this team of somewhere between 20 and 60 people that they meet with occasionally, but, more importantly, they know what each one of these people’s specific expertise is within their area.

One of us principal engineers gets a job and we need something specific, then we can go to that guy. I was given a job several years ago where I needed some material expert who was knowledgeable in fast fracture. I’d never even heard of fast fracture, but he found one, some guy out in California that was a great guy. That’s what our Tech Fellows do. They’re usually older, well-established individuals that have been working with NASA for a long time, that know NASA. They’re really a great group, so by my boss offering me all the Tech Fellows to help with this, I got the cream of the crop right from the start.

Wright: Did you have a deadline you were working under too?

Cragg: Yes, we did. That last meeting with the minister of health, we were told that he was going to make a decision on the final design a week hence, so what I wanted to do was get him something by the time he was going to have to evaluate these designs. We came back to work on Tuesday, we had three full days, and I wanted to get that to him Friday morning. So that’s what we did.

Wright: So you had a bunch of them here for a reason, and you had Ralph come in and talk to them.

Cragg: Right. We initially had a lot of help from Neil [Cornelius J.] Dennehy and Tim [Timothy S.] Barth, both from the NESC. We decided, at least initially, to divide the issues up by Tech Fellow areas, like materials and things like that. We had an initial meeting and we said, “Okay, come back at two o’clock this afternoon and we’ll see where we’re at.” We did that for the first day, and we were not making a whole heck of a lot of progress because people weren’t working together.

The next morning one of the Tech Fellows suggested that instead of doing it that way, we ought to divide the tasks up into issues specifically for the capsule itself and issues specifically for the support equipment that would be in the capsule. Everybody agreed to that and thought that was a better idea, and that’s when we started making a lot more progress.

We then had two meetings each day, and finally on Thursday in the afternoon we had our final meeting. We had a pretty good rough draft. We were using WebEx [Communications Inc. internet conferencing software], and I told them at the time that this was going to be their final review up on the WebEx. I wasn’t going to send it out anymore, because it needed to get done. That meeting took a long time, but at the end of it I thought we had a pretty good product. That night after Tim Barth and Neil Dennehy and I put the final touches on it, wrote an executive summary, we sent it up to Al Condes who passed it through export control. So by noon the next day I’d sent it down. We were pretty happy about that.

Then I didn’t hear much about it for a couple weeks, and I sent a note to my Chilean submarine friend and also to the Chilean navy doctor that we had met down there. The Chilean navy doctor told me that he was intimately involved in the design process, and they utilized or accepted most of our recommendations into the final design. But when I think about that, all we did was provide suggestions. The Chileans actually did the design and the building, and that’s the real hard part, and I think they did a great job at that. We were just providing advice.

Wright: Let me ask you a couple more questions about the team that you assembled. You mentioned the Tech Fellows because they have such a wealth of information. I think you had a team of about 20, and you mentioned about 10 were here at Langley. Were the other 10 from different Centers and/or outside the agency, or were they all within NASA?

Cragg: I’m trying to remember if we had anybody from outside the agency. I think we did, maybe some retired people, one retired guy from JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California]. We had people from KSC [Kennedy Space Center, Florida], Tim Barth was at KSC. We had a number of people from JSC—some were here, some were still at JSC. We had Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California]. I don’t think we had anybody from Dryden [Flight Research Center, California], but we definitely had people from Goddard [Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland]. Neil Dennehy, my deputy, was at Goddard. I think we had one person from Glenn [Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio]. It was mostly NASA employees, mostly NESC employees, but we come from all Centers. We’re pretty well represented across the country.

Wright: Did you receive unsolicited help? Sometimes when word gets out that you’re working on something, people from outside the agency want to send you suggestions. Or was this pretty much a closed discussion within the people that you selected to be on that team?

Cragg: I know that some of the Tech Fellows went out to their people, their technical discipline teams, and asked for advice, but those people never got into our meetings. I don’t know how extensive that was. I think it was so short-fused that there wasn’t a lot of time for people to give us unsolicited advice.

Wright: Did you select these people, or did people give you names? How did you actually come up with the working group?

Cragg: The Tech Fellows, there’s maybe 15 or 16 of them. I just got all the ones that were available. I think all of them were.

Wright: I would assume they were working on another project someplace, so they were able to stop what they were doing to work on this?

Cragg: Yes, pretty much. Some of them came in for a while and had to step out for a little bit, but the majority of them spent most of their time with us.

Wright: Part of what you did is your recommendations for the guidelines. As you mentioned, you included aspects from the behavioral health and the medical doctors. Were they involved in these discussions or were you using inputs they had given to you previously?

Cragg: One or two of them was involved initially. I knew they wanted specific things. We had talked about it at the mine site, and we had talked about it at the airport before we came home. Some of the things that they wanted for medical reasons were the same kind of things that we wanted for engineering reasons. For example, we wanted lighting in the thing so that the individual had situational awareness. In case the thing got stuck we’d be able, or the Chileans would be able, to talk to the guy and, him being right there, to figure out what was wrong. On the other hand, the doctors wanted lighting for morale purposes. The doctors, psychologists wanted to keep the guys’ spirits up. We wanted two-way communications, again, to help out if there’s any issues on the capsule coming up. They wanted it so that they could talk to the individual in case he was experiencing some kind of medical issue.

I think we got everything the doctors wanted. After I got done with it, J.D. Polk and I talked for quite some time about the paper, and I think he was good with everything that we had put in there. Somehow I got all their inputs and some of the other inputs they had. You’ll see in this paper that we’ve listed if the requirement had anything to do with medical. They wanted to have some oxygen onboard in case the air coming up was bad in the borehole. I think we got everything.

Wright: There’s so many unknowns. Were you still working on the premise that it could be anywhere from an hour to four hours to get them out?

Wright: Of course, that changed drastically as they moved along.

Cragg: Yes. It did, it did. I didn’t watch all of it on TV [television], but the first ones were very slow and determined, the first extractions. But the latter ones, the last three, I think all came out within an hour.

I remember when we were down at the mine site, they had these five-inch boreholes that they’d originally found the guys alive with, and they were resupplying them through these holes with a Paloma [Spanish for dove] device. They call it a Paloma, which was a two-meter-long pipe, capped at either end. I remember standing there watching as they were lowering something down to the miners and timing it. They had a winch hooked up to this two-meter-long pipe, and they just lowered it down. It was really going pretty fast, I thought. It took eight minutes and twenty-two seconds to get down, and I was thinking to myself, “That’s pretty damned fast. I don’t think they’re going to be able to get these guys out at that speed. That would be kind of reckless.”

So when they said one to four hours, I thought that probably makes sense if they want to make sure. But I think by the time they started doing it and they realized that the design that they had was pretty robust, they were able, as they learned more and more, to speed up the operation.

Wright: During the discussion process, were there certain aspects from your group that yielded more discussion, pros and cons? For instance, did you put the list in priority, or were they all of significant value?

Cragg: We didn’t really prioritize them, other than we listed the medical things in the front of the rescue capsule section and in front of the other section. We did have some heated discussions. You can’t have a normal conversation with a bunch of NASA engineers. Everybody has an opinion, and so that’s why you have a group leader. “Okay, everybody said their piece. This is the way we’re going to go.”

They were all good people, and I thought they came up with a lot of really good stuff. I was more amazed that some of the best stuff came from people who had absolutely no connection whatsoever with mining. Some of the specialties, like materials, there’s a direct translation there, but other people dealing with aeronautics and things like that had some really good ideas.

What I learned really from all of this was that the people in NASA, there’s some really amazing people and that there’s not many challenges that these people can’t overcome given what the parameters of the problem are, what the issues are. They can design something that will help or provide, in this case, suggested design recommendations. I don’t know, maybe I ought to start a company where we just hire old NASA engineers and go tackle hard problems.

Wright: You might have a pretty big selection in the next few years to choose from as well. You were a charter member of the NESC.

Cragg: That’s correct, yes.

Wright: Since 2003, you’ve had an opportunity to see, as you just mentioned, how these people come together. Did you find anything different with this group of challenges? It was so different in the sense that you weren’t dealing with “normal” NASA, that the NESC steps out and helps industry when it needs to. So did you approach it differently, or is it the same as you have done in the past?

Cragg: I suppose I approached it somewhat similar to the way I’ve tackled problems here at the NESC before. I’d never been involved in mining in my life, but in my talks with the Chilean navy people, they hadn’t been there either. Once we understood what the mining guys were going to provide us, which was like a 26-inch borehole that went down a half mile, it became just really an engineering problem to figure out how we were going to extract them. So with all that background it was sort of out of the ordinary, but then again it wasn’t because it was an engineering problem.

Wright: Which I find interesting because you went down as a possible assistant to the medical folks, yet engineering took such a step forward in helping solve this problem.

Cragg: Right, it was fortuitous. We were looking to help out in any way we could, and this is one way that I thought NASA could help.

Wright: Talk a little bit about the team dynamics of you working closely with the other three members of the team. We just talked about how you came back and worked with engineers, but had you worked with J.D. or Al or Mike before?

Cragg: No, didn’t know them. It was the first time I met them, and I thought we got along very well from the start. We were all fish out of water, so to speak none of us had ever done something like this before. I think all of us were trying our hardest to be able to help the Chileans and give them something that they could use based on our experiences. So we were really supporting each other, I think, and really put our nose to the grindstone when we were down there. I got along with them real well, and now we’re best friends.

Wright: I hear you have a team name.

Cragg: Right, right.

Wright: You said about two weeks after you submitted the paper you heard back. What became of your involvement after that time period?

Cragg: Not much at all. I’d heard maybe once again from the doctor, and I’ve had a number of correspondences with the navy submarine captain, but really outside this issue just kind of friendly banter. We weren’t asked anything else, and I don’t know how much the others were asked either. I don’t fault the Chileans, I think they did exactly as I would have done it. They asked for help, we gave them our advice, they took the advice and ran with it. Then, as the time came for the rescue, it was a Chilean show. And it really needed to be, I think, a Chilean show. They did the majority of the work, they really kept those guys alive, so I don’t fault them for that. After we had given them our suggestions, they didn’t come back, at least too much. I know that J.D. had talked to the naval doctor maybe a couple times about some other issues, but I don’t think it was very extensive.

Wright: This engineering contribution had an urgency because you had human lives at stake. How did that impact the discussions when you were trying to work within that one-week deadline?

Cragg: We obviously knew we wanted to make this thing strong, and we also wanted, again, to get them something, because it would really be bad if they finished the borehole first and this capsule wasn’t ready. Some of the brighter—well, they’re all bright—Tech Fellows relied heavily on this document called “Personnel Lifting Standards.” It’s the documentation that provides for how to build elevators and things like that. I’m conjecturing here, but there’s specific factors of safety that are involved, so we treated this capsule like that and drew upon these already accepted guidelines in the United States for building a structure that was going to lift people. We were well aware that we were dealing with the safety of these people and we wanted to make sure that this thing did not fail.

Wright: You were here in the States living your normal day-to-day duties whenever you were watching the rescue?

Cragg: Yes, it’s pretty cool.

Wright: Did you have a chance to share with your team that the Chilean government had accepted many of your guidelines, you were able to get that feedback back to them?

Wright: I know that there is a possibility that the four of you will be returning to Chile. What are your expectations or what would you like to accomplish going back to the site?

Cragg: I think I’d like to garner some lessons learned. Maybe NASA could help out in a situation like this in the future. This particular case was, in my understanding, an unprecedented event. The Chileans were really writing the book on this, how to save some people from a half mile down in this type of conditions. For NASA to come down and help, I think really shows the strength of our agency, but if we could somehow figure out how to codify this a little better, maybe in the future if we get asked to help out with some other issue we would be better prepared. This one was pretty much ad hoc, as I understand it. I’d like to get that out of it. I’d like to see how things went with the suggestions that we made and if there were any other issues where we could have helped more, or didn’t help enough. I think lessons learned, we could get quite a bit of good info. The doctors also would hopefully get some information that would help their studies in long-term survival in austere environments.

Wright: Do you feel like, just from this process of going down on the site survey and then coming back and putting this tiger team together, you have lessons learned from that that you’ll be able to apply for another situation?

Cragg: Yes, I think so. I think the lessons learned that I’ll take back is that you can get NASA engineers to do pretty much anything. Having that team here and ready to go as soon as we came back into work after Labor Day was really key to the success, and the fact that they were all charged up and ready to work helped too.

Wright: As a leadership lesson, do you have something you can share on how you were able to work through some of those heated discussions? Can you give us an example? For instance, maybe one of the discussions that you had to settle, how did you come to the conclusion of what to put in that list of guidelines?

Cragg: You know, when I first came here—I won’t say that NASA was a culture shock for me, but I guess it sort of was. One of the first quotes I ever heard from an ex-general, he said that the difference between the military and NASA is in the military when you give an order it gets done, and in NASA it’s the beginning of an argument. So what I’ve learned in dealing with all these really bright people over the past several years is that when you have spirited arguments, you let everybody have their say. If you exclude somebody or let them know that their opinion is not worth it, then I think that’s where you get on the slippery slope. In this particular instance, in putting these recommendations together, that’s what I did. We ended up going through every item line by line, and if there were any issues—and there were some issues.

I’m trying to remember if any knifes came out. One in particular, they were trying to figure out whether we should tell them these designs “shall” be used or just leave them as a “suggested requirement.” One guy was really adamant that these were design recommendations, it should be “shall.” Finally, after everybody had their say, I said, “Okay, that’s fine. We’ll just leave it at ‘shall.’” To tell you the truth, I didn’t really particularly care. The intent was to provide them guidance. That’s my theory of leadership in NASA, let everybody have their say and then make a decision.

Wright: How do you feel your involvement, or even NASA’s involvement, with the situation is part of the overall agency mission? Why should NASA have said, “Yes, we’ll be glad to be a part of this”?

Cragg: It’s always good to help people when they’re in need. We didn’t offer our help, they asked. I think for us not to help would have been bad, because we had the expertise that they needed. I think NASA is an organization that needs to engage with the public. Sometimes the public has that half-hour TV-show attention span, and some of the great things we do don’t really get appreciated, so one of the other reasons I think that was helpful in this, is it got NASA back in the public eye at least for a little bit.

I think if NASA can help in things like this in the future, that we ought to. We have some exceptionally bright and dedicated people here. Just because we’re doing engineering for stuff in space doesn’t mean that we can’t do other things to help other people, and I think we ought to do that if we can. For a little effort in this case, I think we were able to help out quite a bit.

Wright: Do you have some other recollections or some other issues that you would like to share about your trip and/or about this whole process in general?

Cragg: I think one of the first things I learned in the navy was don’t volunteer for anything. In this case, I didn’t follow my own advice. I really thought the Chileans—I was very impressed with them. They’re a very industrious and hardworking group down there, and I thought that they asked for apparently the right advice, not just from us but other people, and they used that advice to good effect. I really thought, watching it on TV, that that was probably the most flawless operation I’d seen in a long time. They had, it looked like, no problems at all. So I’d take away that I have a lot of respect for the Chileans.

I met a lady by the name of [María] Isabel Allende [Bussi]. There’s two of them, one’s a writer and one is the senator. The senator was from that region of the Atacama. Her father was the president of Chile in the 70’s when he was overthrown by [Augusto] Pinochet. A very remarkable lady. She spent 20 years or so in exile and is now back after the military is no longer in power. I got a chance to speak with her for a while, a very gracious lady, just adding to my positive impression of the Chilean people.

It’s very cold down there in September, very cold. I remember reading that one of the reasons the Incas [indigenous Native American culture] worshipped the sun was because when the sun wasn’t out or they were in the shade, the temperature would drop 15 or 20 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Up there once the sun goes away, it’s very, very cold.

Wright: So much of your time was discussion and sharing information. Did you have a chance to enjoy the surroundings and/or getting to talk to some of the Chilean people? It’s such a short trip, I know it was full.

Cragg: This is one of those trips where you work all day and then we got invited out to dinner, and being a Latin country or like a European country, they all eat late. A lady who worked for the minister of economics in the region had us all over for dinner at her house. It was very nice, she was very gracious. We got back to the hotel late, got up early and went back to work. Then the third night we got invited over to the doctor’s house. We didn’t get there until 11 p.m., and the next morning was an early flight. So we did get to socialize a little bit. Then the last day we flew back from Copiapó and we had five or six hours in Santiago. I was told the minister of health got us a tour guide to give us a windshield tour of Santiago. I thought that was very interesting.

Wright: What a nice gesture.

Cragg: Ask the doctors. All the doctors fell asleep, but I was very interested, so I stayed awake.

Wright: I’d like to end with your thoughts of what you felt personally of your involvement as you watched the miners being able to reach the surface, knowing that some of the work that you had done had helped ensure their rescue.

Cragg: Well, you may expect I was concerned about that, but I was very, very relieved when things started going as well as they did. It just seemed that the capsule—and again, I didn’t design it, I didn’t build it, we just provided suggestions—but I thought that the way they had built it, it was performing pretty flawlessly. So I was pretty happy about that. Very relieved, actually.

Wright: I’m glad it worked out well for everyone. Thank you for this morning. You gave us some great information, and I appreciate it.

NASA Helps Design Rescue Capsule for Chilean Miners - HISTORY

Wright: Today is May 27, 2011. This oral history is being conducted with Dr. J.D. Polk in Houston, Texas, for the NASA Headquarters History Office. This interview is part of a series to capture knowledge about NASA’s participation in the recent historic rescue of thirty-three Chilean miners. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. Dr. Polk is the deputy chief medical officer for the NASA Johnson Space Center, and we are in his office today for this interview.

Thanks again for your time on your schedule.

Polk: My pleasure.

Wright: You were one of four members of the NASA team who traveled in August 2010 to assist the country of Chile in the safe return of 33 miners who were trapped 2,300 feet underground. Explain to us how NASA first became involved with the rescue effort and then how you became involved.

Polk: I wasn’t there at the initial onset, but I believe the Chilean Ambassador came to [NASA] Headquarters [Washington, DC] and asked for Headquarters’ help for the rescue. At that time you had 33 people trapped about 2,400 feet below rock at 17 days. When you get out to the 19-, 20-day mark, that’s the longest that anybody had survived in a mine, much less survived that deep in a mine and that many people in a mine. The Chilean president [Sebastián Piñera] is a businessman by nature and entrepreneur, and he asked his folks to go and benchmark against who actually had people in a confined environment for any length of time, to see if they could get lessons learned to help get these folks extricated.

So as I understand, the Chilean ambassador came to Headquarters and asked for our help. Headquarters then turned to the Johnson Space Center because we have the bulk of medical assets here, but we also started to evolve a lot of the engineering discussions as well down here. Dr. Mike [J. Michael] Duncan, who at the time was the deputy chief medical officer, in the position that I’m in now, led that effort to begin to get a team together to see what areas that we felt we could contribute to.

Then as to my personal involvement, my background is emergency medicine. I’m board-certified in emergency medicine. I have a long history in disaster and crisis management in different roles, both as the chief of life flight when I was in Cleveland [Ohio], the state emergency medical services medical director for the state of Ohio, etc., so I’d had a long history of working in disaster and crisis management. Mike asked me to contribute—as well as my space flight knowledge from space medicine. That’s how we got started.

Wright: What was your first involvement as a team, before or while you were getting ready to talk with the Chileans?

Polk: I think our first involvement as a team probably was after a Skype [internet phone service] call to the Chilean Minister of Health. The Chilean Minister of Health laid out the problems and the gaps that they had and where they were in their current process in rescuing these folks. You could tell from the conversation that it was a daunting task for him and overwhelming in its scope.

After that we talked as a team, both us gathering our psych [psychological] components with Dr. Al [Albert W.] Holland, myself, and Mike, starting to divide up what medical things would be needed, talking to NESC [NASA Engineering and Safety Center] with Clint [Clinton H.] Cragg on what engineering aspects would be needed, and putting all those together and discussing how would we convey the information to the Chileans. Would we need to go down, would we just converse by e-mail or Skype?

The Chilean Minister of Health actually asked that we come down. He felt that face-to-face was something that he needed. He also felt, quite frankly, that having us there would help the families, because the families knew that NASA was being invited. To have us there at the site and discussing with them, he felt would give them some degree of confidence and/or counsel. Then also, to give us a better idea of the challenges that he faced by actually seeing them for ourselves.

So we went down to Chile for the week very early on in the rescue process, and it was fairly interesting in that the folks that we were partnered up with, our counterparts, you couldn’t have picked it better. Al Holland was paired up with another gentleman named Al who was a psychologist. They were of the same ilk. They had the same mindset, a lot of the same experiences. My counterpart was a gentleman from the Chilean Navy who was very vested in emergency medicine and trauma, and he and I had rotated at some of the same places in the United States and knew some of the same people, so we hit it off extremely well. Clint Cragg was paired up with a sub [submarine] commander who was from the Chilean Navy who was overseeing a lot of the logistical operations. And Cragg, aside from being an engineer with NESC, happens to be a three-time commander for a Trident [Ohio class ballistic missile] submarine in the Navy. It was almost like gene splicing at that point in time, we really hit it off very well.

Mike was of course liaisoning with the Chilean Minister of Health and with his position that he was working towards with Headquarters. Mike enjoys the politics and the overall scope of policy and how to attack some of these problems, and so they meshed very well as well. Mike’s background is critical care and internal medicine, and this gentleman’s background was internal medicine and nephrology. We were just partnered extremely well, couldn’t have been better.

Wright: Based on what you knew from the Skype call, from your discussions, how did you prepare to go down there? Did you go armed with materials or documents? Share some of the preparations that you put together before you left.

Polk: Yes, we looked at several things. Initially there were some things that we thought would be helpful and then, to be honest, as we got into the process there were many more things. For example, we knew the gentlemen were starving. They had been essentially eating a spoonful of tuna, a quarter of a canned peach, and an ounce of dried milk every other day. When you re-feed folks that have been starving, usually greater than five to seven days, that has to be done in a very methodic and purposeful manner. Otherwise you get into a horrible complication. History has taught us that. Back when we had prisoners in Auschwitz [Nazi concentration camp] and the US service members freed a lot of prisoners in Auschwitz, they were devastated by the horrible emaciated look of these folks and they gave them their C-rations, their Hershey [chocolate] bars and their candy, etc. Unfortunately we ended up killing some folks because that carbohydrate load causes a complication.

We had already looked at something called re-feeding syndrome, and ironically it was for a different reason. The reason that we had looked at it was because with the Hubble [Space Telescope] mission, if Hubble had taken a strike to the [Space Shuttle’s] wing-leading edge and needed to be rescued it could not get to the ISS [International Space Station]. It could not do what’s called a plane change and a Hohmann transfer to get to the ISS for refuge. Essentially, the Shuttle would be its own safe harbor until a rescue mission was mounted, which would take several months. The Shuttle’s only got so much volume so we were actually going to think about down-regulating the crew’s calories down to about 1,000 a day and a certain type of calorie, what’s called an RQ, respiratory quotient.

When you eat protein, carbohydrate, or fats, depending on the amount of that mix, depends on how much your body uses that fuel, and in addition then consumes oxygen or produces CO2 [carbon dioxide]. For example, if you eat an RQ that’s .85, which is mostly protein, you actually burn less oxygen and you produce less CO2. That’s important for us in a vehicle where it’s an enclosed space, where the amount of CO2 scrubbing capability was going to be limited over a two-month rescue mission, or the amount of oxygen might be limited in a rescue mission. Also, decreasing the calories itself decreases the amount of CO2 consumed and CO2 produced.

We’d worked through this, we’d worked through it in elaborate detail in [Microsoft] Excel spreadsheets and Access databases and figuring out what’s called a Henderson–Hasselbalch equation as well as Harris-Benedict equations, in the typical NASA fashion of looking at all of those things—knowing the weight of an astronaut, exactly how much oxygen that they would consume or CO2 produce.

We took a lot of that information with us, potentially knowing that it might be helpful, but not knowing how much help it would be. Actually it was very helpful because when you’re starving, you down-regulate your insulin and you use up what’s called liver glycogen and your metabolism starts to slow down because your body realizes it’s not getting enough calories and it wants to keep things like your brain and other things alive. Eventually you start to run off what is called ketones. Your body and your brain especially will run off of ketones, and you burn initially your fat and your subcutaneous fat, and then eventually you’ll start to break down your own muscle to feed off of it. And that’s kind of where they were.

We had talked to the Chileans, and of course they had talked to other academic centers and medical centers as well, but the fact that they were getting this constant message on re-feeding syndrome and the fact that NASA also said, “Well, not only do you have to be careful, here’s all the equations and how you have to calculate this.” We had an Access database that they could plug in the weights of the miners and actually be able to spit out exactly how much oxygen was going to be consumed, CO2 produced, and where the protein-sparing diet would limit.

If you give someone too much carbohydrate initially, they get a surge of insulin, and also the food is fairly alkaline compared to their acidosis that they are in. What that causes is a profound hypophosphatemia, phosphate is driven into the cells. Your body works off of ATP, adenosine triphosphate, and that’s how your cells have energy and use that substrate for energy. When you have no phosphate in your diet, your cell structures run dry. It’s not unlike running shy of gasoline in a car. Then when suddenly you have a dietary load, especially if it’s carbohydrate and poor in phosphate, then the cells begin to burn that energy to consume that food to burn that for energy. But if the phosphate is still low you can get profound hypophosphatemia or low phosphate, and actually have cardiac failure.

The second thing that you can have is hypokalemia, which is low potassium. Again, because of the surge of insulin, if you have too much carbohydrate the alkaline nature of food is compared to the acidosis of the bloodstream, and that profound drop in potassium can cause cardiac dysrhythmias, which can be fatal. So, literally, re-feeding folks has to be done in a very methodical manner so that you don’t kill them.

You had different factions down at the mine. You had the engineers and the miners themselves who wanted, “Hey, let’s just start shoving food down this hole,” and the Minister of Health, who had listened to our counsel and had listened to different academic centers, knew he had to do this is a very methodical manner. The typical rule is to go low and slow, so they went at 500 calories, then 1,000, then 1,200, then 1,500, and to do it with a particular amount of substrate. At the time they were using Ensure Plus, which is a nutritional supplement that has several things in it, potassium, phosphate, but it’s also fairly protein balanced, has a little bit of carbohydrate. It also has thiamin, which is another important B vitamin that your body burns up when you’re starving. If you don’t have thiamin and you get glucose, you can get what’s called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is a neurological syndrome with horrible ataxia [loss of muscle coordination] and other things.

So it was paramount that when they were re-fed, that they were re-fed in a low and slow process, but also that they got a huge amount of phosphate and potassium and thiamin as substrates to prevent the medical complications. They did that in textbook fashion, and because they did that in textbook fashion, out of the thirty-three miners they had not a single complication.

That was probably actually the second time they had saved them. The miners had saved themselves, they were kind of the masters of their own fate and destiny in that they had dug wells in the mine. What most folks didn’t realize is that there were a couple things that we were fortunate in. First, this was a copper and gold mine, not a coal mine. In the US, unfortunately, we do body recovery in mine accidents more so than we do rescues because it’s methane explosion that occurs and then very often the miners asphyxiate. Between the trauma and the lack of oxygen and the methane, it’s a very poor outcome. Whereas in a gold and copper mine, especially an old 100-year-old mine that had a lot of different airshafts and substrates, it didn’t have methane gas and so their breathing air was good.

The other thing being that the miners were themselves at sea level. The entrance to the mine was at 2,400 feet above. Most people mistakenly thought the entrance to the mine was at sea level and that wasn’t the case, it was actually at a higher altitude. Where that was an advantage is that the miners themselves, since they were at sea level, were able to dig wells to find water. I think they dug three wells. Several were not potable, when the miners drank the water out of those they had gotten sick or ill. But one was one no one got sick with. They were able to then with supplies continue to treat it, with bleach if needed, until they were able to get the bottled water down there. Their ability, their shift leader’s leadership in having them dig those wells allowed them to survive. Otherwise they would have had severe dehydration and had compromise from that as well.

So by the time they’d re-fed them, that’s twice that they’ve been saved. One from having water, the second by re-feeding, and then there was a third thing that came up very quickly. The Minister of Health asked us what labs [laboratory medical tests] he should send down. At the time there was only a four-inch-round tube called a paloma tube [Spanish for dove]. It’s like PVC [polyvinyl chloride] pipe that is not perfectly straight because it’s going through solid rock so it wavers a little bit. You can only send down about a six-foot-long torpedo of things, whether it’s water, food, etc. It was taking a great deal of time to get something all the way down and all the way back up, and the Minister wanted to know what he could put in this torpedo as a medical test. What lab work should he do, what things should he do?

On the International Space Station we very often use very simplistic lab tests, one of them being the urine test strip. You’d think, what kind of information can you really get from a urine test strip? You can get specific gravity, which tells you whether or not someone is dehydrated or not, which is good because then you knew what miners needed more fluids. It also can test for ketones, so you know who is still starving or not. You can see protein in the urine. And it has one problem, which is a problem that we use to our advantage.

In the emergency department, it’s somewhat frustrating with the urine test strips because they can’t tell the difference between hemoglobin, which is blood, and myoglobin, which is a protein byproduct of muscle breakdown. It’ll test positive for blood when really it’s myoglobin. If we were to go to the gym and work out vigorously on our muscles, you get some myoglobin spilling into the blood. If you had a urine test right afterwards it would look like you were positive for blood. That’s somewhat frustrating for emergency physicians. However, we used that to our advantage in this case. We assumed that all thirty-three miners were not having kidney stones, so if anybody tested positive for blood we knew it was going to be myoglobin and we knew they were breaking down their muscle.

The problem with that is when you break down your muscle, either because you’re starving and feeding off your muscle, or, in their case, because they were sleeping on hot rock—there were no cots or beds in the mine so they were literally laying on the rock to sleep—you start to break down your muscle and those breakdown products of myoglobin bombard the kidney. They’re very large molecules, and it can cause what’s called acute tubular necrosis, or the beginning stages of kidney failure. Eventually, if you have enough myoglobin bombard the kidney, which is called rhabdomyolysis, then you can go into frank kidney failure.

They sent down the urine test strips, and sixteen out of thirty-three of the miners tested positive for high myoglobin. They were in the early stages and throes of kidney failure, so they did two things. First, they targeted those folks for higher water consumption to get their urine output greater than 100 CCs [cubic centimeters] an hour. And the second thing they did, which was ingenious on the part of the Chileans, is put out through their press wire essentially an innovation challenge that said, “Hey, we need cots for these folks to sleep on, and, oh, by the way, they’re cots that have to fit in a four-inch round tube that’s six feet long.”

The industry responded, and within days they had prototypes from different companies and they started sending down the cots. They only had to send down fifteen or sixteen cots because the miners were in shifts so you didn’t need the full thirty-three cots. People would hot rack, or bunk, as they needed to. By getting them off the hot rock in the ground and by increasing their hydration greater to the point where they had urine output that was 100 CCs an hour, they actually saved them from renal failure. All of the urine cleared on all of the sixteen.

Now you’re not even a month into this rescue and they’ve saved them three times. One from the initial dehydration, second from re-feeding, and third from renal failure. Then they continued to feed the folks, and as they got another supply line, or paloma, and a third paloma—the more tubes they were able to get down and then get more supplies down to them, the better they did obviously, and they started to eventually send them regular food.

We could tell that the miners were in much better shape when one day they sent food back. We had one miner that did not want—I think it was apple crisp or peach cobbler or something for dessert—and he didn’t want that, he wanted something else. That’s kind of the hallmark. You know when we’re starting to get choosy on the menu that you’ve reached a certain threshold that you’re no longer in survival mode.

One other thing I think was very important for the Chilean government is that we broke it down into segments, into bite-size chunks. The Minister of Health himself knew that and had broken things down into three or four different segments, but we expanded that a little bit for him. We’re used to that in missions. We have preflight things that we do, then we have the flight team, and then we have the post-flight things that we do. Typically there are different teams that handle those things that all come together in a larger, greater mission that a flight director and program manager oversee at a much higher level. They needed to do the same thing, because it was clear when we were down in Chile that the Minister of Health was overwhelmed.

We broke it down into, first, you have the initial incident. Then you have the survival phase, then you have a sustainment phase, then you have a rescue phase, and then you have a convalescence and rehab phase. The initial incident, you worry about trauma or about asphyxiation and all those things, and fortunately they’d gotten past that. The survival phase was the re-feeding and the hydration. Then the sustainment phase is making sure they’re well fed with a normal diet, but also the psychological support and making sure that you start to change their mindset from a sprint to a marathon.

The first estimates were that it was going to be December [2010] before they would get them out, which was four months or more. Fortunately it wasn’t that long, it was much faster due to different drilling techniques. But we had to change their mindset greatly. First they were in a horrible mindset of despair, they thought they were going to die before they were rescued. They weren’t horribly sure they were going to survive even after the first contact with them by the Chileans on the surface. Their mindset at that point, at that seventeen-day mark, they were literally wondering, “If this guy dies, will we eat him?” It’s kind of hard to get your head around that kind of mentality, but shifting them from that to, “All right, now we’ve got work to do to clear the rock from the drilling. We’ve got this, we’ve got these things we’ve got to set up.” Giving them meaningful work was extremely important.

It’s something we’ve learned from space flight—and something we’ve learned from sea voyages in the past, the Arctic Passage [19th-century expedition], things of that nature. People that are busy and have meaningful work are not sitting there depressed, worried about the outcome. Because the drilling up above has a pilot hole, bits and pieces of the rock would fall down the pilot hole and start to accumulate in the mine so they had to clear that. They had the constant up and down of the supply palomas coming with the water and the food that they had to do. They were working in shifts doing all these things, and it was very helpful. Splitting them into shifts and giving them some sort of circadian rhythm was also important.

We had lots of folks e-mail us, trying to be helpful, with suggestions like, “You should send them iPods [digital music players].” Well, that’s nice on the surface. Most of us, when we go to the gym like to listen to our music and the whole works, and have pictures of our kids or what have you on the iPod. But in a survival situation you don’t want somebody going off by themselves to where they can get depressed. They need to eat as a group, work as a group, sleep, everything as a group. Everyone takes care of each other, and no one goes off by themselves. If somebody becomes quiet and starts to isolate themselves, you bring them out of that and engage them in the group. It was extremely important to do that. Plus, mine safety. You didn’t want to have somebody yell, “Look out!” or, “Rock!” and have you sitting there with 70 amps [amperes] of Foo Fighters [rock music group] in your ear. That was something we had to contemplate as well.

Al did a great job on also making sure that the amount of communication from the surface to the mine was appropriate. There was essentially a planning meeting every day between the surface and the miners so that they knew what was going on on the surface. They knew how far the drill had gotten, they knew if there were any setbacks, a bit breaking, etc. Then, talking to the families. We’d start to send down personal items, keep them connected to their family and above, but also that fine line of too much comm [communication] from the family. People have problems and worries on the surface, but you don’t want to translate those into the mine. They have their own problems and worries in the mine.

We’ve learned that in long-duration space flight. We’ve got the IP [internet protocol] phone and we thought, “Oh, isn’t this great? They’ll talk to their families every day, what a great thing that is.” Well, it is and it’s not. It’s a double-edged sword. If you’ve been working all day in space and you’ve had on the task list everything that you had to do by this hour, and the ground wants these pictures down, and you finally get to your pre-sleep period where you can take a breath a little bit and you call on the IP phone and your spouse says, “Hey, I thought you were going to take care of that roofing before you left, you need to call the roofer. Johnny got a D on his math test, and you talk to him because you’re the one who usually helps him with math.” All of a sudden now it’s not just your problems that you’re dealing with, you’re dealing with the other problems. There’s a fine line between support from the family and from the surface, and taking on the ownership and onerous responsibilities from the surface and the family. We parlayed those lessons from space flight into the mine as well, and with the Chilean authorities.

Then of course we had to start thinking about the rescue portion. The rescue was fairly interesting from a NASA standpoint in that we used our engineering and design expertise. Clint Cragg was the leader of that area through NESC. Designing the capsule wasn’t just, “Well, I’ll make a metal cage and bring them up.” There were different things that we had to consider. First of all, it’s a 2,400-foot journey, and you’re limited by the size of the drill bit at 26 inches. Somebody standing essentially at attention [military posture] in a cramped metal cage of 26 inches, just like an 18-or 19-year-old out on a parade ground. A healthy, vigorous, athletic 19-year-old soldier stands there with his knees locked and after five minutes will pass out on the parade ground. The problem with the miners was unlike the 19-year-old soldier who passes out and then becomes flat and then has blood return back to his heart and brain, if you’re in a cage where you cannot lie flat, you get what’s called orthostatic hypotension. You’re not getting enough contractility of your legs, your blood is beginning to pool in your lower extremities, your blood pressure drops and you’re not getting enough blood back to the right heart and you pass out. Eventually when you don’t get enough blood to the right heart and you can’t lie down, you’re in danger of dying. That’s one thing that we had to worry about, how are we going to combat that?

Also, how are we going to monitor the folks on the way up? Whether they were going to panic, whether we could see if they were breathing or not, whether they had enough oxygen. If the cage got stuck because of rock, you only had the oxygen above you and below you. You were going to have metal above and below you in the cage, so that small volume of oxygen or the small volume of CO2 that you would produce, we had to worry about all of those things.

If the rock that was loose up at the top of the mine fell down and actually pinned the cage, you wouldn’t want some guy stuck in a very narrow tube for a day and a half. First of all, physiologically he probably wouldn’t tolerate it. He could get the orthostatic hypotension and potentially die. But second, he would burn up his oxygen and produce too much CO2, so we had to figure out a way that they could escape, even if they were in the cage.

All of those things went into design requirements. Initially we wondered should we build the cage, should we build the capsule? The Chilean Minister of Health, I thought, was also ingenious in how they attacked this. I think part of it was for PR [public relations] reasons, they needed something to show that the Chilean government was helping to do this, that they weren’t just turning it over to folks. He asked me, “Actually what I need you to do is give me all the requirements for this.” So, much like when we build a space capsule, we built the requirements. What are the physiological requirements, the medical requirements, the cage requirements? Should we do a fault tolerant with this, that, or another? Should it have levers for an escape for the bottom to drop out? Should we do this, should we do that?

We had pages and pages of requirements written in typical NASA fashion. We wrote these in very short order after we went down to the mine, and the teams worked very diligently on it. Engineering even had concepts, they used the students that they had in engineering to help build conceptual vehicles out of PVC pipe. And we had the small—it’s a laser kind of putty cutting, much like they use in the auto industry to make models of cars. We have the same thing for space vehicles, where we can take our requirements and our dimensions and make a three-dimensional model of the vehicle. The engineers even had several three-dimensional models for us to show the Chileans as to how this would look, which I think helped. They took the requirements and they gave them out to the industry and other places, and, again, used competition and innovation and said, “All right. Here’s the requirements. Bring us your best models.”

Several companies responded, as did the military, as did other different industries, and they had several working prototypes brought to them. The Chilean Navy actually had the best design, and so that’s what they went with, the Chilean Navy design, but it was based on NASA requirements. The Chilean Navy did tweak some things and made some upgrades and had some interesting ideas as well that were parlayed, a lot of our different requirements. It worked very well.

One of the things that we do for the Shuttle and the ISS is before the astronauts come home, because they are at a loss of fluid volume because of the fluid shift on orbit, we do what’s called a preload or a salt load. They usually take a certain amount of salt tablets and a certain amount of an electrolyte fluid. What that does is increase what’s called preload in the venous capacitance of the body so that your blood pressure doesn’t drop. That way when astronauts go from zero-G [gravity] to 1-G, their blood pressure doesn’t drop and they don’t pass out while they’re trying to pilot the Shuttle or the [Russian] Soyuz [spacecraft]. That fluid load is also augmented by a garment that gives pressure to the lower extremities and pushes blood up to the heart and brain. We also use exercise, the pilot and commander and these returning Soyuz crew, to increase the muscle contractility in the lower extremities. Your muscles also add tone to the venous system to allow that blood to come back to your heart and brain.

We used the same thing on the Chileans. They did exercise prior to their rescue, they did the same fluid load as we use on the Shuttle and the Soyuz, and they had a garment that was not a pressure garment, it’s called a Jobst garment. It’s a tight garment underneath their clothes that pushed a little bit of the fluid and allowed the fluid not to puddle in their lower extremities, pushes the fluid back up into the heart and brain. That allowed them to prevent orthostatic hypotension while the guys are in the capsule.

They monitored the folks and their vital signs on the way up the capsule. The other thing that they had, if you noticed in the pictures, the miners all had harnesses on. They weren’t hanging in the capsule itself, the harness was in case the capsule got stuck. They had a separate cable that went through the capsule, and there were two levers that would allow the bottom of the capsule to drop out so that the miners could be lowered back into the safety of the mine in case the capsule got stuck. That’s why they had the harness on. We had thought about those things.

The miners themselves had not been exposed to ultraviolet radiation and sunlight for months, so, again, the Chilean health authorities had lots of competition and innovation. The Oakley [Inc.] company responded, so they had really nice Oakley sunglasses. They met the requirements of blocking UVA [ultraviolet-A] and UVB [ultraviolet-B], but also were temper-resistant so that falling rock or debris—they were also safety glasses.

They just did an outstanding job, and as you could tell when they got to the surface they looked like rock stars. Coming out, they were chanting and running around. But even then, one of the things that we asked the Chileans to do was to treat them in what’s called a Six Sigma fashion. They should not be lulled into a false sense of security. When the folks get up and they get to the top of the mine, they’re cheering and they look great, because they’re running on adrenalin. Very often the blood pressure and/or pneumonia and/or whatever problem that miner might have, once the adrenalin had worn off, would take hold.

If you noticed, the Chilean health authorities, after the guys were done hugging their spouses and their kids, etc., laid them all on a cot in the same fashion, took them to the triage tent and examined them and did treatment on them, made sure they all had thiamin and other multivitamins and fluids, in that treatment area. They were all treated in that same fashion, regardless of how they looked, and that was actually very helpful because several of the folks were still ill. They had pneumonia in one, several were still fairly dehydrated. One was a diabetic that they needed to pay attention to as well. By doing that very standard Six Sigma, not letting their guard down, they were able to combat and prevent anyone having untoward sequelae afterwards.

They then took them by helicopter, which is another recommendation of ours, to the hospital and put them through the evaluations and checks. That helped for a couple reasons. It helped, first of all, that because of all the medical testing they were not overwhelmed by family and friends. They got to introduce themselves back to family and friends in chunks to allow them to get used to being back on the surface. It allowed them to treat things and make sure that they were healthy, but also allowed us to start telling them to get into the mindset of rehabilitation and convalescence.

I think that’s the hardest part. We warned the Chilean health authorities that once they get to the surface it’s not over. Typically what we’ve learned in space flight is we treat and/or rehab [rehabilitate] our folks for two times the length of confinement. There’s psychological aspects, returning to your family. This was a traumatic event. The potential for post-traumatic stress disorder, the potential for nightmares, depression is very real. It doesn’t show up right away in the first thirty, forty-five days it shows up usually after that. We forewarned them about those things, that they were going to have to be diligent on those things. Health consequences, virus reactivation, especially herpes viruses or Epstein-Barr viruses, still occur after very stressful events like that. And silicosis and/or lung problems, because they were in a mine with fine dust from the mining and the drilling, could still be a problem. They embarked on those.

I think, though, that the American public, the Chilean public, and probably to some degree the Chilean government started to get a false sense of security when the miners came out. One’s going and running the Boston Marathon, one’s on [Late Night with David] Letterman [television program], they’re going to [Walt] Disney World [amusement/theme park]. You think, wow, post traumatic stress? They’re going to Disney World, they’re on Letterman. They’re not having post traumatic stress. But we’ve gotten word since then that they are having problems and they are having nightmares and there are folks with suicidal ideation. The things that we knew would occur, they don’t usually occur in the first day or two that you’re up, or the first week or two while you’ve got the spotlight on you. It’s usually after all the press goes away and all the attention goes away and it’s just you and your thoughts at night, and your own demons, that those things occur.

So I think, at least from our standpoint, a lot of the lessons from space flight—whether it was the fluid loading, whether it was lessons that we’ve learned from orthostatic hypotension from our labs and other places, whether it was how to re-feed folks that might be starving due to Shuttle/Hubble missions—all of those things came into play—the psychological aspects that we’ve learned on ISS, probably more so than we even anticipated in our first conversation or two. And, fortunately for us, a very positive outcome with the thirty-three people surviving.

But typical of our lessons learned, we still feel that mission’s ongoing. Whereas most folks would say that once the thirty-third guy was up the mission was over and that’s great, we still have the mindset that until we get about a year away from this the treatment for depression and post traumatic stress and the psychological aspects are still paramount in our mind to treat those folks. Those are things that we’ve learned from exploration and from tragic events as well.

Even [Space Shuttle] Columbia [STS-107 accident] and [Space Shuttle] Challenger [STS 51-L accident] have taught us. Because of our own tragedies and stressful events, treating those folks and the survivors on the ground, how long it took for folks to recover from that, even those lessons learned—which I think Rick [D.] Husband and the crew would probably be grateful that at least there was something to be gained even from tragedy at NASA—could be applied to this Chilean mine rescue. I’m sure in Al’s [psychologist] mindset he’s still thinking that it’s still going on. It’ll be every bit of a year or more before those folks are stable at least psychologically and not at great risk for suicide or depression.

Wright: Listening to it, it sounds like so much of what you needed to assist them fell into place. But what were some of the challenges that you faced, especially at the onset, of being able to gather the information and/or get the resources you need to be able to help them?

Polk: Actually, not many. To be honest, the Chileans were extremely forthcoming, which is, in and of itself, different. You think about when the United States or the Russians have a submarine that is stranded or we have Hurricane Katrina even. Other countries offered to help us. “Oh, no, we got it.” There’s a little bit of ego there, there’s a little bit of you don’t want to be the most powerful country and relent to someone else’s help. The Chileans looked at it totally differently, in a different mindset. They’re like, “Hey, we’re still in charge. Bring all your ideas. We’ll look at all the ideas, and we’ll pick the best stuff out of everything, and we’ll do whatever we can from an innovation standpoint to apply your lessons to get these folks out.”

It was not this, “Nope, we got it. Thanks, love you,” kind of egotistic or egocentric type of mentality. It was totally opposite. They were extremely grateful for the information and the insight. They were still in charge, obviously. They were going to decide whether or not they were going to implement your advice or your counsel, but they were very forthcoming with what their needs were, what their gaps were. If we needed any information on the mine or what type of drill or this or how fast, we got that information right away.

And likewise at NASA, although our primary purpose is space flight and space flight missions, we had no problem getting folks to help us and/or pay attention to this. Engineering, for example, building the models. We were careful that we were not going to use taxpayer or government resources in areas that we were not authorized to do, but to theorize and/or to use the science and engineering background of the agency for folks to say, “Here’s an idea. Have you thought about this for the design of the escape pod?”

It was remarkable as to how much information we could get and come to bear. Even, to some extent, our international partners—the Soyuz fluid-loading protocol, in addition to our Shuttle fluid-loading protocol, see which was best. But little things. I’m sitting in my living room with my laptop, and I’d gotten an e-mail from one of the Chilean docs [doctors] who said, “How fast can this pod go up? We don’t want their blood pressure to drop if somebody pulls it up too fast. Is there a standard?”

Well, in talking with my international partners and other folks, all on e-mail going back and forth, or Skypeing, there is an ISO standard [International Organization for Standardization]. ISO is typically a European standard agency. There’s an ISO standard for the speed of an elevator. They had done a great deal of study to make sure that when an elevator starts to go up, people’s blood pressure don’t all drop and you end up with unconscious people in an elevator. Within probably seven minutes of him asking the question, we’ve had a conversation on about four continents by either e-mail or Skype or the electrons, and I sent him the ISO documents and standards. Then we theorized, well, if they start slow and the first two seconds work up to the speed that a typical elevator would go to at a meter per second, then they should be fine.

It’s interesting what a small and global community it’s become. One, because of the networking that we have from the International Space Station. If I needed something, I could reach out and touch the Japanese flight surgeon, the ESA [European Space Agency] flight surgeon, the Canadian flight surgeon, the Russian flight surgeon. We are a global network. Also that technology has allowed us to e-mail, Skype, and/or sit there with your pajamas on and your iPad 2 [electronic tablet computer] and hold that kind of conversation.

Wright: That’s a good way to do business. Our time is up for now, and a good way of closing it is the fact that you’re preparing for a trip to return. Of course it’ll be a little different from the last time you went, can you give me an idea of what your expectations are or what you’re hoping to gain from going back and talking with the people?

Polk: Most folks would assume that it’s a one-way conversation, that we’re going to down to see what worked, what didn’t work for the Chilean mine. It’s actually a two-way conversation. Not only do we obviously want to debrief what worked well, what didn’t work well, what did they use, why did they decide not to take this requirement or use this requirement, but also what things we can bring back to long-duration space flight. A lot of the things that we used from space flight were applicable to this situation that we never would have dreamed of. It probably works that way in reverse as well, that there are lessons learned and things that they learned—from the physiologic standpoint, medical standpoint, psychological standpoint, leadership development, business-type lessons, innovation lessons, not just necessarily things that live in the medical house—that might be applicable back to our space flight. Especially as we go and embark down the road for commercial space flight, where our mindset has to change somewhat from the way we’ve done business for the last fifty years. Their entrepreneurial and innovative spirit and how they attacked this is something that is probably a good lesson learned for us coming back, especially as we embark on commercial space flight, to see are those lessons learned we can apply there.

Wright: I hope when you come back we’ll have a chance to visit.

Exercise regime

"One of the things that's being recommended is that there be one place, a community area, which is always lighted," said Al Holland, a Nasa psychologist, speaking at a press conference outside the mine.

"And then you have a second area which is always dark for sleep, and then you have a third area which is work, doing the mining, and the shifts can migrate through these geographic locations within the mine and, in that way, regulate the daylight cycle of the shift."

The miners lost an estimated 22lbs (10kg) each during the 17 days before they were found alive. Since then, they have been receiving food, water and medicine through three bore-holes.

On Thursday, the men received their first hot meal - meatballs, chicken and rice. Previously they had received only glucose tablets and high-protein milk.

Michael Duncan, the Nasa team leader, said that authorities should add an exercise regime to the miners' schedules.

"Before our astronauts go into space, we put them on exercise programs and the miners, even though they're doing some work down there, we will want to phase in some exercise programs as their nutrition improves," he added.

NASA-designed capsule helps free Chilean miners

Miners trapped for 69 days following the collapse of a shaft at Chile&rsquos San Jose mine are today being transported from their subterranean ordeal in a capsule that has its origins in Germany.

So far, 15 of the 33 miners have made the 15-minute journey in the Phoenix II escape pod, one of three designed for the operation by NASA and Chilean Navy engineers.

With an inside diameter of 21&rdquo (0.5m), a height of 14&rsquo (4.2m) and weighing 420kg, the Phoenix II pod was chosen for the rescue as it is small enough to manoeuvre narrow points and kinks in the shaft.

The design of the pod can be traced to a mining disaster that took place in Germany in 1955 when three miners were trapped in Dahlbusch colliery following an underground fire.

Engineers there developed a device that could be dropped into a small borehole and lowered and raised quickly and repeatedly. The three miners were trapped 855m below the Earth&rsquos surface, although a vertical 42m borehole was drilled above them from the next level in the mine.

The system that was developed, the Dahlbusch Bomb, had a length of 2.5m and a diameter of 38.5cm and has been deployed numerous times, notably in 1963 when it was used to rescue 11 miners trapped at 58m in the Lengede iron ore mine in Germany.

Phoenix II, which will be lowered to a depth of 625m at a speed of 91cm per second, has retractable wheels at the top and bottom of the capsule to aid its journey.

Before the ascent the miners are being fitted with a biometric belt so that doctors can monitor vital signs, along with an oxygen mask and a helmet containing two-way communications equipment.

Once in Phoenix, a harness straps the miner to the centre of the capsule before being winched to the surface.

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How NASA Helped Rescue the Chilean Miners

The world has been transfixed by the rescue of 33 miners trapped nearly a kilometer (about a half a mile) underground in the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile. Seeing the men emerge from their 69-day-long ordeal has been emotional for everyone involved, as well as for those of us just watching from afar. But were it not for NASA, the rescue might not be going as smoothly and trouble-free as, thankfully, it has. NASA’s expertise in long duration space missions – which are similar in many respects to what the miners endured – as well as the space agency’s knowledge in specialized engineering and training for emergencies has been invaluable during the rescue operations. NASA provided suggestions regarding the rescue cages that were specially-designed to pull the trapped miners out of the narrow shaft that was drilled to rescue them, and also is providing on-site expert advice on medical, nutritional and behavioral health issues.

“What we brought to the table for the Chileans was our experience in behavior health support, not only in terms of the confinement and entrapment for that period of time but also what the miners and the families could experience once the miner had been rescued,” said Dr. Michael Duncan, who led the team of NASA experts who traveled to Chile, in answer to a question posed by Universe Today during a web chat. “In working with our astronauts and their families we prepare them beforehand and we support them during the mission and we support them after the astronaut returns. And I think our expertise in those areas was very helpful for the Chilean doctors and psychologists.”

Among NASA’s suggestions were an increased supplement of Vitamin D to normalize sleep patterns and developing an organized daily routine that includes exercise.

NASA also helped with diet suggestions which would help their well being during their entrapment, as well as making sure the miners would be well enough and trim enough to ride in the rescue capsule.

Indeed, the miners have emerged looking healthy and several have bounded out from the capsule, running to hug family and friends or greet the cheering crowd.

When the Chilean engineers decided a capsule was the best way to rescue 33 trapped miners, the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) provided about 75 recommendations, said Clinton Cragg, principal engineer at NESC, in an interview on WAVY.com. Most of those design elements found their way into the 4-meter (13 foot) 420 kg (926-pound) capsule dubbed “Phoenix.”

With the cramped, one-at-a-time ride taking 20 minutes or more, the miners are monitored by video on the way up for any sign of distress or panic. They have oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from unfamiliar daylight and sweaters for the huge temperature differences from the heat of underground to the chilling cold in the high altitude Atacama Desert in Chile.

Satellite image of the San Jose Mine area where the miners were trapped. NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using Earth Observer-1 satellite.

“The Chileans had a very limited set of requirements that they had given their own engineers with regards to how to design this cage, and that was primarily length, diameter, and weight,” said Duncan. “Looking at the video of the cage, some of these things they’ve certainly incorporated into their design.”

In an image from video, rescuer Manuel Gonzalez Pavez reaches the 33 miners in the collapsed mine. Source: AP

Now that the miners are safe, Duncan said each will be observed for any medical conditions that they may have developed. “Of course, we’re looking for things like skin infections or infections of the sinuses or the lungs,” he said during the web chat. “Something that they may have acquired due to exposure to the warm, humid and dusty conditions in the mine.”

In regards to the psychological health of the miners, Duncan said doctors and psychologists have been working with the miners and their families in an effort to educate them on these types of issues and the sudden celebrity that the miners now find themselves in, and they hope to try to prevent any future psychological issues from occurring.

The NASA team assisting the Chilean rescue included two medical doctors, Duncan and J.D Polk psychologist Al Holland and Cragg.

“I am proud of the people of this agency who were able to bring the experience of spaceflight down to Earth when it was needed most,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement. “As the drama of this rescue continues to unfold before us, we pray for the safe return of each and every miner.”

For a wonderful slideshow of images from the rescue, see this link to Reuters.

Sources: NASA, Washington Post Web chat, WAVY-TV NASA Earth Observatory,

Annie Murphy Reports On The Scene At The San Jose Mine

'They Wept'

"We have done what the entire world was waiting for," he told the Chilean president immediately after his rescue. "The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain. We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing."

As Urzua hugged and shook hands with rescue workers, he said, "Thank you. Thank you for everything. You have been excellent."

The rescue workers who talked the men through the final hours were then hoisted to the surface one by one.

When Urzua stepped out of the capsule, he hugged Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and shook hands with him and said they had prevailed over difficult circumstances. With the last miner by his side, the president led the crowd in singing the national anthem.

The miners ascended to the surface like clockwork at a rate of one or two an hour. They emerged looking healthier than many had expected, embracing their wives and children and looking remarkably composed after languishing for 69 days.

I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil, and I reached out for God.

Mario Sepulveda, the second miner rescued

The anxiety that had accompanied the final few days of preparation melted away at 12:11 a.m. local time when the stoutest of the 33 miners, Florencio Avalos, emerged from the missile-like "Phoenix" rescue capsule smiling broadly after his half-mile journey to the surface. In a din of cheers, he hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son and wife and then President Sebastian Pinera, who has been deeply involved in an effort that had become a matter of national pride.

Annie Murphy, reporting for NPR, described the scene as Avalos emerged: "Everyone's watching on a huge screen, and then there's this slight pause, as if people almost can't believe seeing this guy come up, and then everyone just broke out into cheering and screaming and hugging each other."

Jubilant bystanders chanted, "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!"

Some of the miners were animated as they emerged, others quieter. But all of them were visibly grateful to be above ground. The most ebullient of the bunch came out second, an hour later.

Mario Sepulveda's shouts were heard even before the capsule surfaced. After hugging his wife, he jokingly handed souvenir rocks from the mine to laughing rescuers. Then he bounded out from behind a barrier and thrust a fist upward like a prizefighter.

"I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil, and I reached out for God," Sepulveda said later as he awaited an air force helicopter ride to a nearby hospital, where all miners were to spend 48 hours under medical observation.

Doctors who completed preliminary examinations on the men said they found very few problems. Several of the men reportedly said that after 10 weeks of daily exercises, they were actually in better physical condition than when the mine collapsed.

Rescue Effort

Latin America

Interactive: Trapped Underground

On the way up, the men were monitored by video for any sign of panic. They also had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from unfamiliar daylight and sweaters for the jarring climate change -- subterranean swelter to the chillier air above.

The miners have survived more time trapped underground than anyone on record.

Chile exploded in joy and relief at the news of the first rescue in the Atacama desert, about 20 miles from the Pacific coast.

The men have become national heroes in Chile. Some 1,500 journalists from around the world were on hand to report on the rescue. Literary agents and film producers were also hoping to seal a deal with some or all of the miners.

In the capital, Santiago, motorists blared their horns in triumph. And in the nearby regional capital of Copiapo, from which 24 of the miners hail, the mayor canceled school so parents and children could "watch the rescue in the warmth of the home."

The methodical pace at which the miners were being hoisted through the earth matched predictions that the rescue operation would be complete in about 36 hours, barring major glitches.

After the fifth miner, the rescuers paused to lubricate the spring-loaded wheels that give the 13-foot-tall capsule a smooth ride through the 2,041-foot escape shaft. Then they brought up the sixth and seventh.

The entire operation was meticulously choreographed, with no expense spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment — and drilling three separate holes into the copper and gold mine.

Mining is Chile's lifeblood, providing 40 percent of state earnings, and Pinera tapped his mining minister and the operations chief of state-owned Codelco, the country's biggest company, to lead the rescue effort. It went so well that its managers abandoned what a legion of journalists had deemed an ultraconservative plan for restricting images of the rescue.

A huge Chilean flag intended to obscure the hole from view was moved aside so that hundreds of cameras perched on a hill above could record the rescue attempt, which was broadcast live on state TV.

President Obama called the rescue a tribute to the unity and resolve of the Chilean people who have inspired the world. Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, he said that families' tears reflected the relief and joy of people everywhere.

"Let me also commend so many people of goodwill, not only in Chile but also around the United States and around the world who are lending a hand in this rescue effort," Obama said. "From the NASA team that helped design the escape vehicle to American companies that manufactured and delivered parts of the rescue drill to the American engineer who flew in from Afghanistan to operate the drill."

Freelance journalist Pascale Bonnefoy told NPR from Santiago that the Chilean government "has put every effort and every resource into this."

Although some have criticized Pinera for trying to score political points from the rescue, "the government as a whole did what it had to do and did it well," she told All Things Considered.

That included the surreal moment when the capsule dropped into the chamber for the first time.

"I think everyone really started to understand what was happening here when the first rescuer went down," Murphy reported.

"There was just this incredible moment where I was with a group of family members when everyone just caught their breath as they saw this man disappear into this very, very small hole in the earth," she said. "And then about 30 minutes later, maybe a little longer, the first miner came to the surface."

Thousands of feet underground, bare-chested miners, most stripped down to shorts because of the subterranean swelter, mobbed the rescuer who emerged to serve as their guide to freedom.

But the owners of the mine have been conspicuously absent since the disaster began more than two months ago.

"The owners of the mine haven't shown up," Bonnefoy said. "They haven't said a word."


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