Text by Mandi Keighran
The Sa Grutta caves, located deep underground in Sardinia, are seemingly a world away from outer space. Yet, as a unique European Space Agency (ESA) training programme goes to show, there are more similarities between the two extreme environments than might be first imagined.
CAVES (a tangled acronym for Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills) is an annual programme designed to put experienced and rookie astronauts to the test and build the behavioural skills necessary for a successful space mission.
Like outer space, the Sa Grutta caves are dark, confined and isolated, providing the opportunity to carry out experiments in a highly stressful environment: the astronauts spend six days underground, where the temperature is a constant 14oC and the humidity is nearly 100 per cent. “The danger is real, physical and present all the time,” says Italian astronaut and 2013 participant, Paolo Nespoli. “You are not in a simulator, and it is essentially like a space mission.”
The astronauts sleep in a base camp of tents, report to “mission control” each morning, and throughout the day conduct experiments and surveying. In 2013, for example, the team discovered a potentially new species of crustacean, mapped over 1km of uncharted territory, and recorded unusual CO2 levels that could indicate the existence of another, undiscovered, entrance to the cave system. “You feel this urge to explore,” says Nespoli. “You want to know what is around the next turn, inside the next hole, down the next well, or 100m above you.”
Although planted firmly on Earth, many CAVES astronauts find the experience more psychologically challenging than being in space. “I didn’t expect that,” says Nespoli. “For a space mission, you get years of training. You feel you know everything. For this, though, we had one week of training. It’s such a dangerous situation; you can die at any time.”
“A space station is very familiar to us compared to this,” agrees Mike Barrett, a NASA astronaut who also took part in the 2013 programme. “This is like an alien landscape, it’s very much like a space walk on the surface of a planet like Mars. You’re really not sure what you’re going to find.”
Do it yoursel
While the Sa Grutta caves aren’t open to the public, you can visit the nearby Gennargentu National Park, which boasts Punta La Marmora, the highest mountain in Sardinia; Gola Su Gorropu, the deepest canyon in Europe; and the Sa Oche and Su Bentu caves.