NASA astronaut Jessica Meir rocks her CAVES shirt on board the International Space Station. Jessica was the first woman to participate in ESA’s underground astronaut training programme in 2016.
It might not be obvious, but there are many similarities between working deep underground and in outer space.
Since 2011, ESA’s Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills course has been taking astronauts below Earth’s surface and preparing them to work safely and effectively as representative spaceflight teams in an environment where risk, scientific operations and living conditions have many similarities to space . At the end of the course astronauts are better prepared to participate in long term ISS expeditions, balancing mission goals, environmental risks, team demands through their individual skills and team processes.
As many as 34 astronauts from six agencies have scouted caves to experience the challenges and excitement of exploring alien environments on Earth.
Jessica joined the 2016 edition along with five astronauts from China, Japan, USA, Spain and Russia in the caves of Sardinia, Italy, to explore the depths and train for life in outer space. As the team’s biologist, Jessica was tasked with searching for alien underground life. Jessica talked about her love for exploration and her experience at CAVES in her video before launching to the Space Station.
Just as with spacewalks, the underground ‘cavewalks’ required safety tethering, 3D orientation, careful planning and teamwork. Jessica and her fellow cave explorers needed to stay alert in an environment where they were deprived of natural light and every move was a step into the unknown.
The experience no doubt complemented the extensive spacewalk training she has since received. Jessica went on to conduct the first ever all-female spacewalk during her 205 days in space. Alongside NASA astronaut and friend Christina Koch, the women totalled 21 hours and 44 minutes outside the Space Station across three historic spacewalks.
The next ESA Caves course will take place in 2021. ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is tentatively booked for the course. Follow all the Caves adventures on the blog.
From under the Earth to above it, Jessica is now back down on our planet. She returned with fellow NASA astronaut Drew Morgan and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka on 17 April.
Given a global pandemic and strict quarantine measures, the crew were welcomed home, just in time for Earth Day on 22 April. The annual event to mark environmental protection is celebrating its 50th anniversary and is the first to be celebrated from home.
As difficult as quarantine has been for communities across the globe, the impact on our planet is noticeable. Analyses from Earth observation satellites are showing the continued low levels of nitrogen dioxide concentrations across Europe – coinciding with lockdown measures implemented to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
In light of this, staying home does not seem such a bad way to celebrate Earth Day.