Why These Astronauts Headed 800m Underground To Prepare For Alien Exploration

There’s a cave in Sardinia where the minds of astronauts are pressure-tested to see how they would cope with the isolation and stress of living on a hostile world and searching for alien inhabitants…

The next wave of space exploration’s endgame won’t just be about ships, but settlements – living and working in life-supported structures in alien landscapes, while searching for ET. But how do you prepare human minds for the psychological pressure of working on alien worlds, in confined, sealed spaces? RISING asked Loredana Bessone, leader of the Special Skills and Exploration training unit at the European Space Agency. She prepares astronauts for planetary exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life by taking them to extreme environments here on Earth to simulate hostile, alien conditions.

Extreme environments such as the 800m deep cave systems on Sardinia stand in for Mars and the Moon, and mimic some aspects of life on the International Space Station. It’s a simulation, but the challenges of working in complete darkness and in an environment where messing up could be fatal, help toughen up the astronauts for the massive psychological shock of working off-planet.

RISING Why did you choose a cave environment for astronaut training? Loredana Bessone ‘Space is a very unusual and hostile environment. Surviving in that environment is about adapting to it, not changing it. The deep cave environment is very similar in many ways. You have to bring everything you need with you, from light to food. You move around a cave, and in space, in a very different way from how you move around the surface of the Earth. The underground environment is three dimensional, confined, and for safety reasons, as in space, you are usually attached to a surface. You live in isolation and communications are limited, so expeditions have to be self-sufficient. We also factor Earth to Moon or Mars time constraints into communications with the team to make a mission more realistic.’

Giant caves on the Moon or Mars could serve as radiation shelters and may harbour extraterrestrial life

RISING Some of the underground spaces in cave systems here on Earth are vast – are there similar systems on Mars or the Moon? LB ‘Yes – very large lava tubes were recently discovered in satellite images of both Mars and the Moon. They are huge by comparison to Earth, with entrances hundreds of metres across and voids that go on for tens to hundreds of kilometres below the surface. These could host future underground settlements. The lava tubes could also serve as a natural protection from radiation, an ever present danger for our astronauts of the future. It’s likely that these might have contained subsurface water, and are one place where we would be looking for extraterrestrial life, living or extinct. These protected spaces could also give us huge insight into the past and current geology of the Moon or Mars. Of course, the first explorations of these caves systems would be using robotic rovers, and not humans. We recently presented a concept for a robotic mission in a lunar lava tube.’

RISING How do you train astronauts to look for extraterrestrial life? LB ‘In the caves there is an introduction to learning the techniques that would be necessary to collect samples to search for extraterrestrial life; it’s obviously important that any samples are not contaminated by the microbes brought into the ecosystem by the astronauts themselves. As important is learning to identify where to sample, to identify the niches, say inside rocks, that might harbour extraterrestrial lifeforms.’

RISING So they need to be able to sniff out potential leads? LB ‘We train our astronauts to become mini scientific specialists, so that they can independently spot promising sampling sites that might contain tell-tale signatures of previous life forms, or even living extraterrestrial creatures. They need to learn to remain downwind of a new sample, so that dirt from themselves or their suits does not contaminate the samples or enter the sampling bags. It’s a bit like using forensic procedures when examining a crime scene.’

RISING What about learning to deal with the pressure of working in an environment that could kill them, so far from home? LB ‘These expeditions are only one of few where a six person international team of astronauts work together over many days as a team. The astronauts themselves must choose who takes different roles. But part way through we ask the leader to swap roles with the underground campsite manager. The commander role switches to one of the most tedious jobs where they must attend to the critical but boring aspects of any expedition – inventories of food supplies, allocation of kitchen tasks, garbage handling, resupply requests.’

RISING What effect does swapping roles have on the trainees? LB ‘It is a good learning experience for the individuals and we also see different styles of leadership emerge from different personalities in different situations, say a very directive or military type style, versus an inclusive style of decision making. This allows the whole team to see how the change in style of leadership changes the dynamic within the team and the way that influences the way a task is done, something that is really important when people are going to be working together in close quarters for missions lasting months, or even years in the future. You see that the most experienced, those that have lived in space often hold back to allow the young ones that experience of leadership.’

RISING How are you teaching people how to mesh, given that they are going to be working together, but in isolation, for a long time? LB ‘In Sardinia, deep underground the team are learning to live with each other in an authentic way. In a post-shuttle era astronauts don’t get a chance of a shorter initial flight, now if you go into space it’s always for months at a time. The mix of personalities is clearly important. Slots are not so frequent, so we sometimes see an astronaut arriving on the ISS as a commander, but it is his or her first time in space. That’s tough, so the more preparation before they fly, the better. Cave expeditions are a great way to ensure that when you arrive in an alien environment, with a bunch of people that you don’t know too well, and have never lived with for any length of time, you can be safe, effective, pleasant, and as important – have a good time.’

You smell, but so does everyone else. It’s a case of washing with wet wipes, just like on the space station

RISING There must be a real psychological strain that comes with being cooped up in a small space with each other? LB ‘All of the activities over the week force people to become very tolerant of each other’s behaviour. All privacy disappears as there is only one toilet, and personal space is as limited as it is on the International Space Station. If somebody snores you just have to live with that. After you have used your couple of changes of clothes, you smell, but so does everyone else. It’s a case of washing with wet wipes, just like on the ISS.’

RISING So there’s not much comfort on a space mission? LB ‘In space, comfort is not what you have to expect. During an Extra Vehicular Activity, same as when you explore a cave, if you move too fast you become tired, hot and sweaty, standing still you become cold quickly. You have to learn to measure your speed and pace so that you do not over-exert, maintaining a stable heartbeat and body temperature at a constant and comfortable level. Our astronauts need to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.’

RISING Does being in a cave with millions of tonnes of rock over your head tend to make people claustrophobic? LB ‘Yes. Going through a tight squeeze in a cave system, at some point everyone has the same thought pass through their heads. I could get stuck here, there must be 800m of solid rock above me. Panic or anxiety in this kind of situation would be dangerous for everyone including yourself. Or you are walking through a rock fall. Being clumsy you could set off a dangerous avalanche, what if it all starts to move? You need to constantly keep awareness of the environment, your gear, the location and wellbeing of yourself and your teammates. Again, there is a strong similarity with EVA, where you need to move with a large spacesuit through small spaces to reach and repair equipment. Where is that airlock where you need to squeeze back to with your crewmate? And where is your crewmate?’

RISING And at the other end of the scale, space is dizzyingly open and empty – how does a cave help you prepare for that? LB ‘A tiny squeeze could open out into a space where lights won’t reach the edges, the vastness of space (or large rooms in a cave) can have an extreme agoraphobic effect. This kind of experience takes people to their utmost limits. They must learn to adapt to the difficulties of the environment and pace themselves mentally. But by the nature of our selected astronauts, no matter how uncomfortable they might be at the beginning, they force themselves to cope, and cope well in the end.’

RISING You obviously expect your trainees to cope but have you ever tried to trip them? LB ‘Originally, I tried to introduce a level of stress by isolating the astronauts and deliberately removing their light source. But that failed because they all, pragmatic as they are, decided that the best thing they could do in the situation was to go to sleep. And they did. One even complained that the sound of dripping water made it hard for him to get to sleep!’

WHAT NEXT? Watch the astronauts and their expert speleology instructors explore the Sardinian caves in 2016…