Thailand’s Navy SEALs announced that divers successfully rescued all 12 members and the coach of a youth soccer team from a cave on Tuesday. But before the the two-week saga came to an end, it had an unexpected subplot featuring billionaire CEO Elon Musk, who offered to lend his high-tech gizmos and expertise to the complex extraction mission.
The team went missing on June 23 when torrential rains flooded the cave they had been exploring after practice, making it impossible for them to leave. Two British divers found the castaways 10 days later, which triggered a massive rescue operation that involved 1,000 people and attracted international media coverage. Retrieving the team proved to be an incredibly complex task, largely due to the treacherous route the boys and their coach would have to travel to escape the cave. The path from the team’s location to the exit ran 2.5 miles, and certain stretches were as narrow as 2 feet–by–2.5 feet. Many of the boys were weak from their ordeal and did not know how to swim, much less scuba, and it took experienced divers around five hours to traverse the passage. One Thai Navy SEAL veteran died while trying to place extra oxygen tanks for the team along the way.
Musk began tweeting on July 4 about the possibility of getting involved in the mission. In response to a user asking the CEO to help, he wrote, “I suspect that the Thai govt has this under control, but I’m happy to help if there is a way to do so.” The next day he suggested that technology from his Boring Company could be useful since it “has advanced ground penetrating radar & is pretty good at digging holes.” He also pointed out that pumps equipped with Tesla’s Powerpack batteries could help to siphon water from the cave at an accelerated rate.
On July 6, Musk announced that he would be sending engineers from SpaceX and the Boring Company and continued to muse about possible solutions to the problem on Twitter, such as inserting an inflatable tube into the cave that would serve as an air tunnel or constructing “double-layer Kevlar pressure pods with Teflon coating to slip by rocks.” (Cave rescue experts previously told Slate’s April Glaser that additional high-tech pumping and drilling would not likely be of any use in this case.)
Musk ultimately settled on his approach on July 7, writing that after consulting with experts in Thailand he had decided to build a “kid-size submarine using the liquid oxygen transfer tube of Falcon rocket as hull.” The advantages of the submarine, he claimed, were that it would be light enough for two divers to carry and small enough to squeeze through narrow gaps. He posted videos of prototype tests in a Los Angeles pool a day later:
Musk was in the Thailand cave by Monday with the submarine in tow, noting that he would be donating the vehicle to the rescue operation.
The rescue squad eventually told reporters that they would be unable to use Musk’s submarine. In a statement that read as unintended commentary on a common Silicon Valley blind spot, the rescue chief Narongsak Osatanakorn said of the submarine, “Although his technology is good and sophisticated, it’s not practical for this mission.” Musk’s involvement, though ultimately unnecessary, appears to have been well-intended and did not impede the operation.
However, Musk was not content to simply let this be a complimentary story about his admirable effort to save the team. Instead, he went on to challenge the BBC’s reporting and Osatanakorn’s authority.
Osatanakorn, for what it’s worth, is both the former provincial governor and the head of the rescue operation—the two titles are not mutually exclusive. Osatanakorn was set to step down over the weekend to allow a new governor to take his place, but has reportedly become so popular as the face of the rescue effort that he’s been allowed to stay on to supervise the operation.
In the same thread, Musk went on to argue with another Twitter user and complain that the press uses the “billionaire” label as an insult—not, say, an objective descriptor of his net worth.