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NASA to Aid Trapped Chilean Miners

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William Ide

A top official at NASA says the U.S. space agency will send a team of experts to Chile on Monday to help advise how to keep 33 miners trapped deep underground physically and mentally fit until they are rescued.  

Dr. Michael Duncan, NASA's deputy chief medical officer, says the space agency will tell Chilean officials what it does to help keep astronauts in the tight quarters of the international space station healthy. "NASA has had a long experience in dealing with isolated environments, in particular currently on the space station.  We train and plan contingencies for emergencies," he said.

The miners have been trapped in a gold and copper mine in Chile's remote north since a cave-in on August 5th.  But it was not until a week ago that they were found alive.

There are concerns that some of the miners might already be struggling with depression as they deal with the challenge of being trapped 700 meters underground.

On Sunday, the miners were able to talk with their loved ones after a communications line was established.  Until now, contact between the trapped men and their families has been through notes and officials.

NASA's Michael Duncan says Chilean authorities and the miners already have done a lot to help the men prepare for what lies ahead. "The Chileans are very well organized.  They have a lot of resources at their disposal.  They have done a lot for the miners and, in fact, the miners have done a lot for themselves underground to show the will to survive and to organize themselves to be able to survive this long.  So our plan is to go down and provide the advice that the Chileans have requested in the areas of nutritional support and behavioral health support," he said.

Chilean officials are also seeking help from the country's submarine service for advice on survival in extreme, confined conditions.

Rescuers have drilled three narrow holes to where the men are trapped.  The holes are being used to communicate with the men and pump in oxygen as well as to provide them with food, water and other supplies, including antidepressants.

Efforts to free them could take as long as four months.  Although, mining experts say an alternate rescue tunnel might be completed in two months under ideal conditions.

On Monday, rescuers are expected to begin the months long effort of drilling a rescue hole through which the men will be pulled out of the mine.  Officials say some of the miners will have to lose weight to fit through the narrow rescue shaft.

The plight of the Chilean miners has caught the attention of the world.  On Sunday Pope Benedict XVI said special prayers for the miners and their families.  The  pontiff said he hoped for a happy ending to the mines' ordeal and wished the best for those working to free the men.

The San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile has a history of accidents.  It was shut down in recent years for safety reasons before being reopened.  Last week, relatives of one of the miners filed a lawsuit against the mine's owner.

A Chilean judge has also frozen $1.8 million in revenue from the mine as a precautionary measure after the mine's owner, the San Esteban mining company indicated that it might declare bankruptcy.

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