Tuesday, August 24, 2010

NASA Consultants' Advice For Chile


Trapped Chile Miners: NASA asked to Help With Psychological Trauma

You would practically have to be living in an underground mine yourself if you haven't heard the news these past few days about the 33 trapped miners in CopiapĆ³, Chile. While relieved tears and cheers met the news that they were alive 17 days after a structural collapse, Reuters reports that experts are estimating it will take 4 months to create a tunnel wide enough to lift the men safely out of the San Jose gold and copper mine.

I don't usually report "news", because there are plenty of outlets for that, but this particular story piqued my interest because it made me think of my own studies, and that of the Mars500. Of course, the Marsonauts and people like myself chose to be part of simulations where psychologists are watching closely for how humans behave in extreme or isolated environments.

A much higher danger factor accompanies mines as opposed to closed-facility quarantine, but I can still relate to what these humans face while they await rescue. At any given time, numerous space agencies (and historically, militaries) have dozens of such experiments underway.

CopiapĆ³, Chile
Luckily, delivering food, oxygen, lights and other supplies to the men through boreholes can be readily accomplished, but they remain in constant danger of further collapses, and the potential effects of involuntary isolation has led Chilean officials to invite doctors and psychiatric professionals to lend their expertise.

The rules of confinement for four months to preserve mental health?
No radio silence, no bland food and above all, absolutely no competitive games.

The Chicago Press Release Service and Canada's Globe and Mail described how their situation is rare and difficult to assess, even to the eminent experts on survival under extreme conditions -- many of whom base their opinions on International Space Station studies and Arctic or Antarctic polar camps, both isolated work environments that require intensive training and superior endurance.

"One kind of mixed advantage is that there are so many of them. Most isolated environments have a lot fewer people than that," said psychologist Peter Suedfeld, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, who consults for the Canadian Space Agency and NASA.

Peter Suedfeld worked on such projects as NASA's Sex, Space and Environmental Adaptation, the Antarctic Division's Why Files (Psychos in Space), and serves as the CSA's Space Traveler's Psychologist.

"In isolation and confinement, even when you're very, very busy, one day blends into the next," said Jack Stuster, a California psychologist with a California-based research company that contracts with NASA and the U.S. military to study human performance in extreme environments. "It's nice to have important events to serve as milestones," he said, adding: "The real thing is that they have nothing to do. That is a problem."

As part of NASA's Risk Symposium (p15), Jack W. Stuster has studied winter-overs in Antarctica, island isolation anthropology, and studies of conditions on Earth that are analogous to space missions.