Cave exploration the astronaut way

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How not to go cave exploring:

An international crew of six astronauts will start training for a caving adventure designed to prepare them for spaceflight. CAVES, an abbreviation of Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills, prepares astronauts to work safely and effectively and solve problems as a multicultural team while exploring uncharted areas using space procedures.

Or to put it more bluntly, overly complicated, bureaucratically organized, and not very efficient. For example:

A dedicated mission control will monitor the crew from a base station at the entrance of the cave. Briefings are held twice a day as they are on the International Space Station. The crew is allowed only one shipment of supplies during their stay underground. They will have to choose the equipment carefully and give mission control at least 24 hours’ notice to prepare the cargo.

I have been on numerous multi-day base camp trips in a cave, and the last thing we would have wanted or needed was to waste our time twice a day with briefings. Interestingly, Russian cosmonauts who flew long missions on Mir told me the exact same thing. When Russia’s economy collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union and their space program could no longer afford to maintain enough ground radio stations necessary for continuous communications with the station, the cosmonauts on board celebrated. Rather than waste time answering foolish questions from mission control they could now devote their time getting their work done.

What you want on this kind of expedition is the ability to contact the surface (or mission control in the case of space exploration) in the event an emergency. Otherwise, it is better to leave the crew alone and let them get on with the expedition. Debriefing is better left to after the mission.

Moreover, resupplying a six-day mission makes absolutely no sense, underground or in space. Cavers long ago found it was inefficient to resupply underground teams on these short expeditions, as a caver can easily bring all the supplies he or she needs. We also found that the work of creating an infrastructure to resupply such a crew was wasteful, time-consuming, and ended up distracting from the fundamental goal, to search for, find, and map virgin cave passage.

In space history has taught the same lesson. NASA didn’t plan on resupplying the Apollo astronauts on their way to and from the Moon. It made no sense. Instead, they spent their time figuring out how to do the mission efficiently and simply.

On the next trips to both the Moon and Mars, it is going to be that way as well. We will not be resupplying these astronauts. It wouldn’t be practical and would cost too much. Instead, these astronauts will go with what they need.

Finally, the focus on “solv[ing] problems as a multicultural team” is absurd. International cave expeditions routinely include people from many different nations. Though the cultural differences are fun and invigorating and provide for a lot of dinner conversation, they very very very rarely lead to any problems. Everyone is there for the same reasons, to find and explore virgin passage, a human goal that easily transcends cultural differences. You shake hands, ask some questions so everyone understands the different techniques and equipment, and you start caving.

And it has been that way in space as well. Astronauts haven’t needed to sit before a campfire singing camp-fire songs in order to learn how to work together. They just do it.

So, what is this silly exercise really about? It is a public relations boondoggle, pure and simple, designed to find a way to publicize the European manned space program so that the funding stream to ESA will continue. The astronauts on this mission will have a lot of fun, and they will certainly map some virgin cave — though not as effectively as a lean and mean cave expedition would — but they will not develop any very useful skills to help them on their next space flight.

Unless of course they see how ineffective this operation is — as the cavers did in the 1950s — and decide to simplify it for future space flights.



  • chris babcock

    It’s the “multicultural” part that scares me. When they run into a path that leads to 3 ways of dieing and only 1 very difficult way for survival, will they choose multicultural answer?

  • Do we want space colonization to be successful?

    Give them ownership by acknowledging reasonable claims.

    The latest pictures from mars show mountains that would provide huge shirtsleeve environments in the form of caves dug in their sides. Make it real property they can buy and sell and the land rush would be on.

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