Caves are 'a completely different world,' says German astronaut

Astronaut Matthias Maurer has gone through ESA cave training. He told DW how extraordinary he finds it that 12 boys and their coach, who didn't have any caving or diving experience, were rescued from a Thai cave.

DW: What was the most difficult aspect of caving for you?

Catastrophe | 10.07.2018

Matthias Maurer: There are different aspects. One is the technical aspect. You have to learn the different skills so that you can climb. Basically caving is climbing, but underground. It's also about teamwork because you have a task in a team and you can only be successful as a team. And you have to adapt to the environment which I have to say was also quite challenging.

What correlations are there between caving and exploration on the moon or drilling on Mars? What kind of practical things could you learn caving that would be potentially applicable on a planet or on a moon?

In May 2018, after many different training sessions, Maurer was certified to go to space

We did two different training exercises at ESA [the European Space Agency, the ed.]. One is the caving for team-work fostering so that you become a good team member and you learn to interact with your colleagues.

The other activity is the Pangaea training, which is geologically focused. There we practice going into caves and lava tubes because on the moon or on Mars, we expect to find such lava tubes and they could be a potential area of interest for explorers.

And not just an area of interest but also practice for potential habitation, if I remember correctly.

Yes, that is one of the concepts that we discuss because in a cave, you are protected from micrometeorites and from radiation. But there is also the challenge of bringing in all the gear. So maybe a lava cave is a good location, but maybe it's not.

When you heard about the Thai boys trapped in the cave, what was your first thought?

I first thought wow, it's so deep in the cave and isolated and they're not experienced — it's a group of boys. So I think there was for sure a lot of panic in this group. It's a completely different world to that which we know. Also being trapped like that on the other side of water and having to dive out — even for me with some cave training that would be challenging. It's really a risky situation.

What are some other dangers inside caves that people wouldn't necessarily think of?

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So in the cave you also have to consider you need water, you need food. You have no equipment to filter the water, and you also need to go [to the restroom]. And so if you pee into the water that you drink, then you have the risk that you might get sick. So you need to keep the hygiene of the place. You need decent food and the boys were in there many days without food, so I guess they were already weak.

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You also have a very humid environment. That means if you have a cut on your skin, it doesn't heal well. Very humid means you move a little bit and sweat. [If] you stand still, you freeze. You get chilly and cold. I don't know the exact temperatures in that Thai cave, but that was my impression in Italy. So it's a bizarre environment and you need training to be able to cope with it.

Matthias, would you say that you like caving now? Would you do it in your free time?

Yes I think it's a new world that I discovered. And I actually like it very much, discovering this unknown territory. But it's also challenging and I know that I wouldn't go there by myself without having trainers or trained personnel that helps me. Because I'm still a beginner.

Matthias Maurer is a German material science engineer and astronaut. He was selected for space training by ESA in 2015 and has yet to travel to space.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Happy ending after harrowing ordeal

After deliberating over how best to rescue the boys and their coach - considering even whether to teach them how to dive, or wait for the monsoon waters to recede months later - rescue workers finally settled on pumping out as much water as possible, sedating those trapped and strapping them to a diver who shepherded them to safety.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Found alive after nine days

Rescue divers initially found the 12 young soccer players and their coach alive on July 3 after they went missing in a Thai cave 10 days earlier. Fighting against time, rain and low oxygen levels, rescuers managed to free the first four boys successfully on July 8. The rescuers faced a complicated and dangerous diving mission to free the rest of the team and their coach.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Glimpse of joy

Families of the teenage soccer players expressed their joy over the discovery of the boys nine days after they went missing. Outside the cave, the mother of one of the boys said she was "glad" for a glimpse of her son. "He's thinner," she said, as she ran her finger over the image of her son on a television screen.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Massive rescue efforts

Thai rescuers were assisted by an international team comprising experts from China, Australia, the USA and Britain. A video from the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page showed the group several kilometers inside the 10-kilometer (6-mile) cave network on a small wedge of dry ground. The boys moved 400 meters further in as the ledge had become covered by water.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Trapped by flooding

The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach entered the cave to celebrate one of the player's birthday. They became trapped in the cave, a local tourist spot where similar incidents have taken place in the past, when sudden rainfall flooded its entry on June 23. It was later reported that some of the boys could not swim, further complicating the rescue.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

A difficult mission

The rescue mission proved difficult for divers whose efforts were continually hampered by rising water that filled sections of the cave, often forcing them to stop. Getting trained divers into the cave was easier than getting untrained kids out.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Boys' safety paramount

The entire nation was glued to the media coverage of the rescue mission, and Thai authorities insisted they will not compromise on the safety of the trapped group. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (above, at right) thanked international experts who helped find the boys.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

First boys rescued

The first four boys were rescued by a team of 13 foreign diving experts and Thai Navy SEALS, who helped them navigate the flooded cave tunnels. The head of the rescue operation said they were the healthiest in the group. The rest of the boys and their coach would be rescued from the cave over the next two days.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Safe and sound

Doctors who treated the boys after their rescue reported that while they had lost weight, the otherwise appeared to be in good health. The dozens of divers and hundreds of other rescue workers have been celebrated around the world as heroes, especially 38-year-old former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, who died after bringing the group supplies of air on July 5.