I was going through my old drafts and found this post I had started to write earlier this year but never finished. Actually it appears I meant this to be part of White (K)nights but I cut it out to make that post more readable.
During my media interactions I was asked multiple times to comment on Elon Musk and once or twice on his submarine. I tried to keep my comments fairly neutral, but the truth is, I and some of my fellow trained cave rescuers were pretty bothered by Musk’s attempted involvement. I got into at least one online debate about how the people in charge obviously were clueless and that Musk’s solution of a submarine was a brilliant idea.
It wasn’t and I figured I’d address some of my concerns. Please note as with all situations like this, I was not directly involved, so I’m going on publicly available facts and my training as a cave rescue person and a cave rescue instructor. I am also not in any way speaking on behalf of the National Cave Rescue Commission or the NSS.
Now let’s discuss the device itself:
- It almost certainly would not have fit. By all accounts, the tightest pinch was 15″ and hard to navigate. Anyone who has moved through a cave knows that even larger passages can be hard to navigate. Locally we have a cave that has a pinch that’s probably close to 15″, but that is at the bottom of a body sized V-shaped passage. Unless you can bend in the middle, you will not fit through it. A cylinder like Musk designed, would not fit. I don’t know the passages in the Thai cave, but odds are there is more than one passage where flexibility is important.
- It also, in many ways was superbly dangerous. Once sealed into the tube, there would be no easy way to monitor the patient’s vitals. And if the tube had started to leak (cave environments can be extremely destructive, even to metal objects), there appears there would have been no recourse except to keep swimming and hoping to get to an air filled chamber quickly enough and that was large enough to debug the issue.
- In addition, if the patients were not sedated, I’d have to imagine that being sealed into such a tube, even with lights for 20-40 minutes at a time would have been sheer terror. As it is, the kids were in fact apparently heavily sedated (a fact that some of us still find a bit surprising, even though very understandable), and yet at least one started to come out of sedation while in a water passage. Without being able to directly monitor the vitals of the patient, who knows what would have happened.
- There’s probably other issues I could come up with. But let me end with this one. Rarely if ever do you want to beta-test or heck even alpha-test, which is what this would have been, a brand new design in a life or death situation when there are alternatives.
Like our White Knights, we want our brilliant tech solutions, but often we’re better off adapting what we’ve done in the past. In cave rescue we try to teach our students a “bag of tricks” that they can adapt to each particular rescue. Foe example, there is no single rigging solution that will work for every rescue. How I might rig a drop in Fantastic in Ellison’s might be very different from how I’d rig a drop here in New York. How I package a patient for movement here may be different than in a Puerto Rican cave. And honestly I’ve seen a lot of high-tech equipment get suggested for cave rescue that simply doesn’t work well in a cave environment and we often go back to the simple proven stuff.
I will add a tease, to perhaps a future blog post, of a mock rescue rescue where a high-tech approach failed after several hours of trying, and the low-tech solution solved the problem.