2011 Safety, Security and International Affairs

James Michael Duncan and the NASA Team

Provided medical, nutritional, psychological, survival and engineering expertise learned from space exploration to help 33 Chilean miners who were trapped 2,300 feet underground for 69 days.

After a 2010 copper mine collapse in Chile that drew worldwide attention, a four-person team from NASA joined the rescuers to assist with the crucial health, nutrition and psychological issues facing the 33 men trapped 2,300 feet below the Earth’s surface.

When the miners miraculously emerged one-by-one in relatively good health and spirits after 69 days underground, the NASA team led by Dr. James (Mike) Duncan was widely credited with helping Chilean authorities sustain the men through their ordeal by providing guidance on how astronauts thrive in confined spaces and under extreme conditions.

The NASA team also provided critical design requirements to the Chilean government for the innovative rescue capsule that ultimately saved the lives of the miners.

“Calling on the assets we have in NASA and the lessons we have learned over the 10 years of operating the space station enabled them to go and make a difference,” said NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. “All of us are really proud.”

Chile’s ministries of health and mining, and its Navy and space agency, among other organizations, were devising rescue plans day-by-day during the crisis and reached out to NASA for help. Duncan, Dr. James D. Polk, a medical doctor, Albert W. Holland, a psychologist, and Clinton H. Cragg, an engineer, spent three days at the rescue site in Copiapo, Chile, assessing the parallels between the miner’s plight and life in space.

Their advice ranged from warning rescuers that giving the starving men too much food too quickly could prove fatal to suggesting the miners wear sunglasses to protect their eyes when they surfaced after more than two months underground.

Team members explained the need to strengthen the cardiovascular stamina of the miners through regular exercise routines and other techniques. Astronauts, for example, lose fluid while in space and drink a salty solution to keep their blood pressure up before returning to Earth.

The NASA team discussed common medical ailments seen in long-duration confinement, including Vitamin D deficiency, skin infections and dental disease, and gave the authorities options to handle these matters.

They made behavioral suggestions that included having the miners establish a hierarchy to maintain community well-being and set up lines of communication to connect them with the larger society above. They also counseled that the miners needed meaningful work and should follow a normal 24-hour work/rest cycle.

“We were able to bring the knowledge we learned in space to the surface, and under the surface, to help people here on Earth,” said Duncan, a NASA deputy chief medical officer who is currently assigned to the agency’s Washington headquarters.

The NASA experts also offered a wealth of knowledge about what the miners and their families might face after the men came to the surface, and offered advice on how to help all of the parties readjust.

“Even I was shocked at the amount of advice we were able to give them,” said Michael Coats, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The Chileans also sought recommendations on the design of the capsule, the cramped tube nicknamed “Phoenix,” that was used to pull the miners to the surface.

The Americans, led by Cragg, consulted with some 20 NASA colleagues and came up with 50 separate design requirements for the unique capsule system. Most of the recommendations were adopted.

NASA engineers advised, for instance, that exterior rollers would cushion the rescue capsule’s ride up, reduce friction with tunnel walls and lessen the possibility the capsule would get stuck midway. The team also recommended supplementing the miners’ oxygen in the escape vehicle.

The Chileans’ proved, with NASA’s help, that deep mine rescues are possible, and the capsule design will more than likely be copied in similar situations.

Duncan stressed that his NASA team did not seek to impose its views on the Chileans, but offered advice they thought would be useful as rescue plans were being formulated.

“Mike and his team were extremely successful at being helpful without being intrusive,” Coats said.

Before joining NASA, Duncan was a private physician with a desire to fly. He’d always been excited about the space program and after joining NASA, participated in Space Shuttle and International Space Station activities.

Duncan’s colleagues describe him as highly organized, and said he excels at setting objectives and getting people to work well together, goals that were accomplished in the Chilean mining disaster.

“We were really proud of what these guys did,” said Michael Ryschkewitsch, NASA’s chief engineer, “and very gratified that what they do for us on a day-to-day basis could be put to good use in saving people’s lives.”

This medalist was the recipient of the National Security and International Affairs Medal, which was combined with the Safety and Law Enforcement Medal in 2020.