December 11, 2010
THE challenge of sending humans to Mars and beyond usually keeps the fine minds at NASA focused on the heavens.
Yet recently the US space agency lent its medical expertise for a more earthbound challenge: keeping the 33 trapped Chilean miners alive and well during their 10-week ordeal underground.
It turns out the conditions for the miners, trapped 700m underground, had a lot in common with those on the International Space Station about 350km above it.
"There are quite a lot of similarities between the miners and astronauts on the space station," says Michael Duncan, the inter-agency liaison specialist at NASA.
"In the mine it's isolated and you cannot communicate rapidly to the surface. It's an austere environment with certain dangers. In a space flight environment . . . the communication is better but it's nonetheless a remote, isolated, austere environment."
The main difference, Duncan says, is that the space station is climate controlled, so conditions are fairly comfortable, while the miners were routinely subject to temperatures above 30C and humidity above 90 per cent.
Duncan and colleague James Polk, NASA's chief of space medicine, were part of a team that visited Chile and the mine site from August 31 to September 4.
The Chilean government asked them to consult on the medical treatment for the miners. Polk says this included advice on what to feed the miners after several weeks of starvation, because NASA had previously run simulations on how to treat astronauts stranded on a space station with dwindling food supplies.
In fact, from blood analysis to robotic surgery, many of the discoveries made from studying the human body in space have applications for general medicine, and not just for people trapped in a mine. Moreover, as commercial operators such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic begin sending civilians into space routinely, the understanding of the effects of space flight on humans will undergo further shifts.
In April, US President Barack Obama committed NASA to sending humans to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s. The biggest hurdle to success is the health toll of being in space for long periods.....continue reading