In Robert Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet, spacemen of the future learned their profession aboard an orbital training ship. Because there aren’t any retired space ships in orbit to play the part of PRS James Randolph in real life, astronauts headed for duty aboard the International Space Station must find earthbound substitutes. For the European Space Agency (ESA), the alternative is to turn smartly about and go underground. On September 7, CAVES 2012 (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills) will see six international astronauts descend into the caverns of the island of Sardinia to learn how to use space procedures by going potholing.

Going down into a cave to learn how to go into space may seem like learning how to fly by sticking your head in a bucket of water, but potholing (also known as caving or spelunking in some parts) and space station duty have a lot in common. Both involve isolation, living in confinement, a distinct lack of privacy and dealing with an alien environment - not to mention potential danger. Being in a cavern hundreds of feet underground can be just as disorienting and unnerving as being hundreds of miles out in space, but without the comfort of being able to see home out the porthole. It’s also wet, dirty and offers a good chance of getting stuck in a crack, so it’s an excellent way of bonding a team by way of common adversity.

Potholing also requires the same discipline, concentration and teamwork that ISS duty involves. The Caves program heightens these similarities by treating the team’s six-day journey like it was a proper space mission. There is a “mission control” at the mouth of the cave that monitors the team, briefings are held twice a day as they are on the space station and the team is only resupplied once as they deal with the same lack of creature comforts.

The “cavenauts” will explore using spacewalk safety procedures while drawing detailed maps of the largely uncharted caverns. They’ll also carry out scientific experiments with an emphasis on studying the life that dwells in the subterranean darkness including arthropods and exotic bacteria. In addition, they will be testing a new communications system.

The video below shows a previous CAVES expedition.

Source: ESA

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