Saving Lives

33 Chilean miners were rescued this week after being trapped underground for over two months. I decided to learn more about the science behind saving their lives.

The Capsule

The capsule was designed by NASA to bring the miners up to safety, one at a time. It had the diameter of a bike tire and stood 13 feet tall, 926 pounds. It had to fit easily through the narrow ‘palomas’ tunnels into the ground, so NASA added wheels to the sides of the capsule. The wheels allow it to slide without much friction, and had to be lubricated to keep them running smoothly.

The “Escape Vehicle” also had an oxygen tank and a place for the rescued miner to stretch his legs. It’s important for the miners to be able to move while inside the capsule, because if they stand with their legs locked for too long, that obstructs blood flow to and from their legs. When blood can’t circulate back to the rest of the body, that could cause them to pass out dangerously before reaching the surface.

Into the Daylight

As they were finally brought to safety, the miners were given special sunglasses to protect their eyes from daylight, which in comparison to the dark cave they’d lived in for two months, would be harmful. After being in the dark for a long time, a miner’s pupils would dilate (become wider) to let in as much light as possible in the dark surroundings. But once in normal daylight, the pupils would not constrict quickly enough. This would let too much light into the retina and cause eye damage.

Scientists feared that the miners may experience solar retinopathy, which is a fancy term for light damage to the eye. Such damage is thought to be caused by toxic chemical reactions happening inside the eye when too much light enters the retina. The glasses also filter out UV light. UV light is dangerous because of its high-frequency wavelength that can penetrate deep into our bodies and causes eye damage. The miners’ eyes would be even more sensitive to such injuries because of their dilated pupils.