Astronauts Embark on a Training Mission Deep Beneath the Earth

A sprawling network of caves in Italy allows would-be space travelers to learn teamwork as they explore a strange new world.

Space is an unforgiving environment. A single mistake can endanger a mission or the lives of an entire crew.

Mindful of these risks, the European Space Agency (ESA) has created a program that challenges astronauts to work together in an unexplored realm that can be as perilous as space: a network of caves half a mile underground in Sardinia, Italy.

An international team of six astronauts from the United States, China, Japan, Spain, and Russia began their descent in early July. Their six-day mission is to establish a base camp while conducting scientific experiments.

“Astronauts adopt the ‘buddy system,’ and both astronaut trainers and instructors repeat the same mantras of ‘slow is fast,’ ‘check your gear, and then trust it,’ and ‘always be aware of where you are and where your buddy is,’” says the ESA website. “Their teamwork is an example of what an expedition in an isolated, risky, and alien environment should be.”

The “cavenauts” are sharing their experiences with surface dwellers through video logs. “It’s incredible, the diversity of the species here in the caves,” says NASA astronaut and biologist Jessica Meir in a recently posted video. “They are very well adapted to the environment. For example, some of them are completely blind and have no body pigment.”

Parts of the expedition are structured to mimic the rigorous schedule aboard the International Space Station. There’s even a resupply mission, where the cavenauts contact mission control and request items from a set list. Limited by volume and weight, careful planning is required to include all the items they may need to continue their underground mission.

And, when they emerge from the caves, the cavenauts experience sensory overload similar to astronauts returning from spaceflight, observes the ESA.

“After days without smells, constant humidity, and no sun, returning above ground can be overwhelming.”

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