Everything I Need to Know About Rescuing Chilean Miners I Learned On Skylab


I wrote this a while back at work, but it wasn’t really an education feature, so I shopped it around a bit to see if it could find a home. For a while, it looked like it had, but now it’s looking like it’s not going to be published, so I’m sharing it here.


Photo: Gabriel Ortega/Government of Chile

From the capsule that was used to rescue 33 Chilean miners trapped underground to the food they ate while awaiting help, NASA provided expert advice to the Chilean rescue team.

The miners spent over two months trapped almost half a mile underground after an access tunnel caved in. NASA sent a four-man team, including an engineer, two doctors and a psychologist, to Chile after the Chilean government approached the United States Department of State seeking assistance. The agency provided consultation on the design for a capsule that could be sent down a small shaft to return the miners to the surface. It also advised in areas  such as diet and exercise to keep the miners healthy while they awaited rescue. (NASA wasn’t the only space agency to contribute — the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency sent specially designed “space underwear” designed to alleviate discomfort and reduce odors.)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said that the agency’s contributions to the rescue effort were a great example of an Earth-bound application of lessons from spaceflight. “For decades, the people of this agency have learned to live, work and survive in the hostile environment of space,” Bolden said. “Our expertise in maintaining physiological and psychological health, and our technical and engineering experience in spacecraft design all proved to be valuable in a situation that is far from our traditional scope of work. 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.”

One person who saw a strong parallel between living space and the experiences of the miners was Skylab II astronaut Owen Garriott. Failures in two of the thrusters in his crew’s Apollo command module during a 1973 mission to the Skylab space station called into question whether the vehicle could be used to return the astronauts safely to Earth and led to a rescue investigation into how best to bring them home.

Garriott said that several aspects of the mine rescue operation echoed aspects of his Skylab experience, and provide a good blueprint for dealing with similar crises:

–Establish communications with home. A communications link used to allow each miner to talk to loved ones on the surface was similar to a system used on Skylab. Garriott said that this provided a “very positive connection to things at home.” In the case of Skylab, it was a turning point in space-to-ground communications, which in the past had been more tightly controlled. “Now, it is a very obvious positive morale booster and also keeps the control center very ‘honest,”” he said.

–Establish a leader. Strong leadership is invaluable in dealing with a situation like this, Garriott said. The NASA training and military background of many astronauts make this a natural process in the agency, and Garriott said the role of leaders both in the mine and on the ground was important in the Chilean rescue operation.

–Provide good food. “The miners were just about to run out of the stored rations, and topside rescuers very promptly started sending them down more and better food, eventually even hot meals,” Garriott said. “On Skylab, all meals were planned beforehand, but were very positive for morale and well-being. Skylab [had] the best food ever flown!”

–Give everyone responsibilities. Rather than focusing on the concerns over their spacecraft, Garriott’s crew, which also included Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean as commander and Jack Lousma as pilot, poured their energy and attention into their work. Upon their return, they were dubbed the “supercrew” for accomplishing 150 percent of their mission objectives. Similarily, Garriott said, shifts were set up in the mine so someone was always working, and miners were given tasks like cleaning, preparing the tunnels for the rescue and exercise, vitally important when activity is limited. “Everyone needs real work to do,” Garriott said.

–Train a medical officer. “I was it on our Skylab mission, but everyone wanted to participate and was trained for it,” Garriott said. And, also as on Skylab, Garriott said the medical miner was helped by the communication link providing “telemedicine” connections with experts on the ground.

–Pay close attention to the morale. “Seems like they did this well, following much of the ‘common sense’ procedures first employed on Skylab,” Garriott said of the Chilean rescue.

2 Responses

  1. Very cool.

  2. Thanks!

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