WASHINGTON – Astronaut Jerry Linenger and architect Eduardo Strauch know the remarkable quality that keeps the trapped Chilean miners going: the immense power of hope.
Linenger and Strauch are living proof of survival amid isolation. They say that power is in us all.
Thirteen years ago, Linenger was only a month into his four-month expedition on an aging Russian Mir space station when a near-deadly fire broke out. That was the beginning of harrowing experiences that included a near-crash and an oxygen system that kept breaking down. A return was months away. It was the space equivalent of what the miners may have to face.
"If the hope is out there, hope can get you through that ordeal," said Linenger, a medical doctor who had two Russian crewmates. "I think it's a testament to mankind, our DNA and our ability to survive."
The Aug. 6 collapse of a main shaft of a gold and silver mine that runs like a corkscrew for miles under a northern Chilean mountain trapped the 33 miners. They could reach many chambers in the depths and lived on two spoonfuls of tuna per person every other day. Their fate was unknown for 17 days until rescuers drilled a small bore-hole that allows those on the ground to send emergency supplies and communicate with the trapped people.
Strauch was one of 16 Uruguayan rugby team members who survived a 1972 crash in Chile's Andes mountains and had to wait for 72 days before being rescued. They forced themselves to eat the flesh of dead friends.
"I'm sure they are going to get out of there," Strauch, now 63, said of the miners. "In these circumstances, the instincts flourish to 100 percent, and from there the human qualities emerge, such as confidence in themselves."
Strauch, who is now an architect in Uruguay, said he and his teammates had a goal of just seeing their loved ones again and "in this case of the miners it's the same. There's tremendous faith in human beings."
Few people have lived through what the 33 miners are now going through, but the closest and most studied analogy is just the opposite of the half-mile underground room where the miners are trapped. It is in space, where astronauts and cosmonauts live for as much as a year, in cramped quarters and with limited contact with friends and family back home. In the past two decades, more than 100 men and women have lived in space for months on end.
The Chilean government has asked NASA for advice on "life sciences" issues and technology that can help the miners, and the space agency will do what it can, said NASA spokesman Mike Curie.
The key is giving the miners a sense of control of their own destiny, said University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor David Dinges. He has studied astronauts and others and their response to isolation and stress. He is also the only American scientist working on an ambitious 520-day program in Moscow putting six volunteers in isolation to mimic a moon mission.
"Hope is a resource in this environment," Dinges said, especially if the miners are trying to help their own rescue. "If they can be an agent of their own rescue, that helps enormously."
Davitt McAteer, who was assistant secretary for mine safety at the Labor Department during the Clinton administration, said the biggest threat to the miners may be the stress that comes with being trapped underground for a long period of time — something mine safety officials have studied.
"This is tough but manageable, doable," he added. "I dare say you or I could do it" with help from counselors.
Space travelers — unlike the miners, they volunteer for lengthy isolation — say there are ways you can survive. Carl Walz, who spent six months on the International Space Station, said, "You just have to go and do it and make the best of your situation."
The sense that "there's no way out ... it's kind of a good thing," Linenger told The Associated Press. He said it focuses people on fighting the problem, not each other, and doing what has to be done.
Walz, who had no crisis on his mission but was isolated, said the key for him was "really staying busy, figuring out a routine and staying with that routine."
That's more important than it sounds, psychiatrist Dinges said. It's not just keeping people busy "but some kind of psychologically meaningful work."
Dinges said the miners also need to keep track of time in a normal way, if possible, even celebrating birthdays.
"It sounds crazy, but things that allow you to organize maintain some semblance of human life," Dinges said.
Another issue that Walz and Linenger raise is a tough one for 33 people trapped in an area the size of a living room: personal space. Linenger responded to isolation by retreating at times to a corner of Mir.
This is critical psychologically because "you've got to give people something that's theirs," Dinges said. "Once you give them that space, God help anyone who touches it."
And that leads to potential clashes among a group, a major issue with 33 people, Dinges said. The answer, he said, is not to allow disgruntled people "to contaminate the psychological character of a group."
Linenger is more optimistic: "Survival and we-are-in-this-together trumps everything."
Linenger said he could live with the glitches, the threats, the loneliness on Mir. What he had difficulty with was the broken promises. When he was told he could speak to his wife, he thought of little else for a week. Then there was a communication problem. All he got was static.
"The unmet expectation is the worst crushing blow you can get," Linenger said. "The biggest mistake you can possibly make is say you'll be down there next week and not show up."
When the miners come up, they'll experience a new feeling of fresh air and freedom that Linenger recalls with fondness: "You just appreciate the fundamental, elemental things of the Earth. And they are going to have that same sensation."
Associated Press writers Raul O. Garces in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.
(This version Corrects the number of Uruguayan rugby team survivors to 16 instead of 33)