Update, July 8, 1:04 p.m.: Elon Musk tweeted on Sunday morning that, because of rescue operations already underway, his team never actually made it onto a plane to Thailand due to the timing of the flights. Musk added that engineers will continue testing their cave rescue designs in Los Angeles in case there’s ever a need in the future. For updates on the rescue efforts, follow the Slatest coverage here. Original post below:
On Friday, a group of engineers from SpaceX and the Boring Company headed to Thailand to aid efforts to rescue a group of boys and one adult trapped in a cave, as the companies’ CEO Elon Musk had announced Thursday on Twitter. There are 12 boys, aged 11 to 16, members of the same soccer team, who are stuck in a chamber of Thailand’s Tham Luang cave complex with their 25-year-old coach. They’ve been trapped there since June 23 after a rainstorm caused severe flooding and blocked their exit.
Thai Navy SEALs and teams of Thai and international divers has been working to supply food and oxygen to those stuck in the cave while a massive rescue operation is underway, with military and civilian experts working around the clock to try to save the boys. About 1,000 people are involved with the rescue operation, according to the BBC. One former Thai SEAL died on Thursday from asphyxiation as he was attempting to deliver oxygen to the boys. To add to the difficulties, many of the boys don’t know how to swim, and the journey out of the cave, much of it underwater, takes nearly six hours. Rescue workers have been giving the group a crash course on swimming and how to use scuba gear before monsoon-level rains are expected to fall on the region in only a few days.
But Musk, the Tesla and Space X CEO who recently started a tunnel-building company called the Boring Company, said on Thursday that the “Boring Co has advanced ground penetrating radar & is pretty good at digging holes.” Though he noted that he “suspect[s] that the Thai govt has this under control,” he is happy to use to help if he can. “SpaceX & Boring Co engineers headed to Thailand tomorrow to see if we can be helpful to govt. There are probably many complexities that are hard to appreciate without being there in person,” Musk later added on Friday.
Discussing the plan on Twitter with James Yenbamroong, founder of Thailand-based satellite start-up muSpaceTech, Musk described the possibility of providing the Thai rescue operation with an air-filled escape tube, as well as water pumps and battery packs, which could be used to help to keep the pumps active. The experts on the ground have so far had a difficult time keeping the water levels in the cave chambers low.
On Saturday morning, he tweeted that he was “iterating” with cave experts in Thailand on “an escape pod design that might be safe enough to try. Also building an inflatable tube with airlocks.” Later Saturday, he suggested that some Space X hardware could be used as part of an escape vehicle.
Will any of this work? The Thai government confirmed Saturday on Facebook that it was anticipating the Space X/Boring Company team, which may “provide services for location tracking, water pumping or battery power” to the current operation. (Obviously, Tesla has plenty of expertise in batteries.) But considering the tremendous amount of manpower and expertise already being thrown at the rescue operation, several cave-rescue experts I spoke to were skeptical that Musk’s team would necessarily be of much use to the already-exhaustive efforts. “It doesn’t matter how much equipment you throw at it or how many dollars you throw at it, you may be reaching the limits of the technology in this particular situation,” Anmar Mirza , a caver and cave rescuer who is a coordinator with the National Cave Rescue Commission, the cave rescue arm of the National Speleological Society, which is the world’s largest organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and exploration of caving.
“With all due respect to Mr. Musk, I am not sure that he or his engineers have a real good handle on exactly what they’re dealing with in this particular situation,” said Mirza, commenting on the rescue-operation brainstorm Musk was conducted over the last two days on Twitter. “The teams working are already doing as much pumping as can feasibly be done in there. They have enough pumping power.”
Though the Thai government didn’t mention whether Musk’s team would be drilling any holes, Mirza stressed that such an effort wouldn’t really be viable for such a time-sensitive mission. A cave rescue in Chile in 2010 took months, and even with the most advanced technology, boring machines don’t work that quickly. “You have to have a high enough survey to know what you’re boring into, and you have to know where on the surface corresponds to a point in the cave. You’re trying to find a needle in the hay stack, and even then, you have to dig hundreds of meters,” Mirza said.
After looking at the ideas Musk shared on Twitter, Rick Speaect, the director of the National Speleological Society and a National Cave Rescue Commission instructor, told me that the at least some of ideas Musk was throwing around didn’t feel well thought out. “He talks about pumping out the flooded entrance, but the problem I see here is that he’s thinking about stagnant water conditions and not all of what he’s talking about will work for moving water,” said Speaect. “And so, with this case you have a constriction that’s 70 cm wide and you have moving water through there, so any kind of tube that you can put through in that small of area, you’re going to be building up a dam behind it for the length of time it takes someone to get through there, because that flowing water is not going to stop,” said Speaect.
Speaect, who is an expert in cave rescue but not underwater cave rescue, noted that it’s always a good idea to propose things, and Mirza added that he has a great deal of respect for Musk. But both stressed that this operation is incredibly complex.
We don’t know if any of the ideas Musk has proposed—either in his public brainstorm or in conversations with Thai authorities—will work, enhance the ongoing efforts, or distract from them. It’s probably true that Musk’s attention to the issue on Twitter has helped raise awareness of the situation, even if the most obvious response to his tweets has been an bevy of armchair engineers in his mentions pondering even more involved ways to pull off the rescue. Hopefully the Thai authorities will be able to benefit in some way from the extra assistance. But whatever happens, it’s still not clear that Musk’s contributions will make the rescue any less of a long shot.