Take six astronauts and instead of sending them into space take them underground is the philosophy of the European Space Agency (ESA). And where better to head into the bowels of the Earth than Sardinia?
Although best known for its sandy beaches and coves, the complex system of caves at Sa Grutta in Sardinia were used to train a group of astronauts in September. Sa Grutta is in the Lanaitho Valley in the Supramonte cave system of the Gennargentu National Park in the middle of the island and some of its miles of caves are still unmapped or unexplored.
Sa Grutta was chosen because it is the ideal environment to emulate the inhospitable and unfamiliar conditions astronauts experience in space travel. It has a constant temperature of 14°C and 100% humidity, slightly colder than on the International Space Station, where the temperature ranges from 18°C to 25°C. Working in isolation from the outside world in confined spaces with minimal privacy as well as coping with technical challenges and limited supplies are conditions that astronauts have to live with in space – and underground.
The ESA exercise is part of CAVES, an abbreviation of Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills, which prepares astronauts to work safely and effectively as well as solve problems as a multicultural team while exploring uncharted areas using space procedures. The experience was designed to be as realistic as possible. A dedicated mission control monitored the crew from a base station at the entrance of the cave. Briefings were held twice a day as they are on the International Space Station.
The crew of six astronauts spent six days underground during their adventure designed to prepare them for spaceflight. They inched their way down into the caves via a sheer rock face in the dark in a journey that took six hours, which is an exercise that has parallels with a space walk. The group were required to work as a team and conducted scientific experiments preparing them for such tasks on the International Space Station. They were even supplied with rations similar to those served in space. On one occasion the astronauts’ teamwork took an unusual turn when, clad in wetsuits and helmets, they joined hands in a synchronised-swimming formation in an underground pool.