Sardinia, the large Italian island off the coast of mainland Italy, is home to a series of complex cave systems. Here, veterans of space and rookies team up to learn the skills needed to work safely and effectively together.
A multicultural team of six astronauts explores the Sa Grutta cave as they learn and sharpen skills like leadership, communication and problem-solving.
The Sa Grutta cave is nestled within the Supramonte cave complex at Gennargentu National Park located in the middle of the island. Discovered in the 1950s, it offers explorers the isolation of spaceflight while being just a few miles away from civilization. Every day is a cool, wet 57 degrees. And each year, six astronauts spend six days below the surface preparing for a future trip off of it.
Last year, NASA’s Jessica Meir and Ricky Arnold, ESA’s Pedro Duque, JAXA’s Aki Hoshide, Roskosmos’s Sergei Korsakov and CNSA’s Ye Guangfu explored the dark, cold cave. The ESA released a stunning video showing off the otherworldly environment.
Add cave exploring to my bucket list. That video is incredible.
Dubbed cavenauts, the international team is made up of both seasoned vets and rookies to space. ESA’s Pedro Duque flew as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery for STS-95. NASA’s Ricky Arnold flew to the ISS in 2009 on the Discovery and conducted two spacewalks. JAXA’s Aki Hoshide is the most experienced of the bunch logging 140 days in space and conducting three spacewalks. The other three (Meir, Guangfu and Korsakov) are still waiting for their first trip into space.
What a CAVES expedition looks like
CAVES is a handy acronym for Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills. Each year, a team of astronauts completes a two-week course in Sardinia.
For the first week, astronauts get to know each other while learning the skills needed to explore the Sa Grutta cave. Everything from how to move through the cave to cave photography tips is covered.
The astronauts decide between themselves which role and responsibilities each one will have during the six-day stay in the cave. CAVES is designed to give the cavenauts as much responsibility as possible. From equipment to food needs, the cavenauts decide as a team what to bring.
The trip to basecamp can take up to five hours as seasoned instructors safely guide the team into the dark cave. Once at basecamp, tents are setup for the six-day stay. The six days begin and end much like they do on the International Space Station. With a daily planning conference to start and a debrief to end.
Conducting science is what organizations like the ESA do, and the CAVES course is no different. Cavenauts gather geological and microbiological samples, take photographs, monitor air flow and carbon dioxide levels and take water samples.
New tech is also tested including underground positioning systems and communication.
And, there’s always time for some fun.
The time in the Sa Grutta cave ends after six days when the six cavenauts and the support team climb back to the surface. After six days below the surface, many astronauts describe the feeling of reaching the surface as overwhelming.
“We really had a feeling of being far away,” said ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet when recounting his 2011 experience. “When we came back, everything on the surface looked strange: the blue of the sky and other colors looked painted with very bright colors and all the smells of nature were so strong. The real world felt all-too real, exaggerated. It was as if someone had turned the contrast fully up on a television. I was able to smell lichen on the trees, which I had been oblivious to prior to entering the cave.”
Six days in a cave in Sardinia is just one part of the constant training that prepares astronauts for the final frontier.