For the past two decades, NASA has been studying what happens to people when they are enclosed in small spaces for long periods of time. The research has yielded insights that might be of use to the 33 Chilean miners, who are likely to be trapped underground for months.
Stay connected: Researchers studying confinement on long Antarctic missions came to believe in a “third quarter phenomenon,” the emergence of depression and anxiety after a mission’s halfway point. In two NASA studies involving 13 American and 17 Russian astronauts working on the Mir station and the International Space Station, my colleagues and I found that this response did not typically present itself with space travelers.
Why? Simple outside communication. When astronauts seemed to be feeling the blues, Russian space psychologists encouraged them to speak with family, friends and famous people on Earth. They asked them to play music and brighten the lights on board, and they sent unexpected presents and favorite foods on resupply ships. American mission control psychologists have employed similar tactics. For this reason, anything that enhances the link between the miners and family and friends should be encouraged.
Outsiders: In our orbital studies, we found that crew members displaced intragroup tension and negative feelings to the “out-group,” in the astronauts’ case, mission control personnel. We all have experienced displacement. You are angry at a boss but can’t say anything for fear of reprisal. Instead, you go home and unload on your partner or scream at the parakeet.
The miners will probably form subgroups involving people with similar interests and values from whom they can receive solace when they feel angry at someone else. But what if everyone starts to feel frustrated? Will they displace their feelings to the surface, believing that those above aren’t trying hard enough to be of help?
It is important for topsiders to be aware of this possibility. The miners should be made to perceive themselves and people on the surface as a team working together. Also, taking a cue from mission control, where the person who communicates directly with the astronauts is usually also an astronaut, it would be useful to have a trusted miner on the surface speaking with the miners.
Support the leader: Luis Urzua, a 54-year-old shift foreman, has emerged as the de facto leader of the miners. Decades-long research in the Antarctic found that successful leaders in these situations perform twin (sometimes conflicting) roles: they assign tasks and monitor the emotional states of individuals. Our space research supports these observations. Those above ground should therefore do everything in their power to reinforce Mr. Urzua in these two roles.
Family time: In our work we found that astronauts sometimes worry more about their families on Earth than about themselves in space. While the Chilean government is focusing its attention on the miners, it is crucial that it care for their families, too; knowing that someone is attending to their loved ones will be a relief to the miners, helping them endure the stifling days of confinement ahead.
Nick Kanas, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, an adviser to NASA and the co-author of Space Psychology and Psychiatry.