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#33: Science Saves the Chilean Miners

By Mac MargolisDecember 16, 2010 6:00 AM


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The celebrated rescue in October of 33 miners trapped a half mile below the Chilean desert was not just a compelling human drama but a historic feat of applied medicine, psychology, and engineering.

Simply digging down to find where the men were trapped was a 17-day challenge; any miscalculation could have sent the drill drastically off course. (It was “like trying to shoot a fly from 700 meters away,” Chilean topographer Macarena Valdés told the CBC.) That hole, along with two others, became lifelines through which water, food, medicine, and clothing—including socks lined with bacteria-fighting copper oxide fiber—were sent, plus a fiber-optic cable for communication.

Bringing up “los 33” from the depths of the copper and gold mine required breadth and depth of drilling more ambitious than in any mining rescue ever before attempted. For this, a giant Schramm mine rig made in Pennsylvania drove an innovative pneumatic hammer-driven drill bit (made by Pennsylvania drilling technology firm Center Rock Inc.), which chipped away at the rock like a giant jackhammer. Meanwhile a team of NASA doctors, psychologists, and engineers consulted with the Chileans, applying lessons learned from preparing and managing astronauts in space for long durations. Finally, a rescue capsule—designed by the Chilean navy with advice from NASA engineers—brought the miners out.

Targeted medications and activities helped keep the men fit, but they also excelled in their own psychology experiment. “In circumstances like this, some people withdraw while others blossom,” says Michael Duncan, deputy chief medical officer from Johnson Space Center, who assisted at the mine site. The miners established a leader, a group structure, and a daily routine. “One miner was designated a medical officer, another was the spiritual leader, while another was in charge of sanitation. These men had a great will to survive."

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