Elon Musk Says He’s Building a Tiny ‘Submarine’ to Rescue Thai Soccer Team Trapped in Cave

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Thai soldiers reroute waterways to help drain a cave system in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand on July 7th.
Photo: AP

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Saturday that he is building “a tiny, kid-size submarine” to rescue the 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach infamously trapped within the submerged Tham Luang cave complex. According to the Bangkok Post, a nine-person engineering team assembled by Musk has already begun to arrive in the area.

Officials were originally relieved to locate the group at all after it became lost in the cave system during heavy rain on June 23rd. But the soccer team’s situation has grown more dire as of late with the threat of further seasonal monsoon rain, and the death of a former Royal Thai Navy special forces diver sent to bolster dwindling oxygen reserves.

Thai officials are currently working on a daring, but very risky, plan to rescue the team by pumping as much water from the cave system as possible, equipping the boys and coach with scuba gear, and then helping them navigate the twisting, flooded 2.5-mile (four kilometer) passage back to the entrance. Musk tweeted on Saturday that while he had several alternative plans, his team of experts had agreed that the best idea was building a small submarine—really more of an air-filled pod—“using the liquid oxygen transfer tube of [a SpaceX] Falcon rocket as hull.” He added that it would be designed to be manageable with the efforts of two divers.

Musk further claimed that the submarine was already under construction and provided some details of its construction, saying it had 4 handles on its front and back and a total of four oxygen tank attachment points.

Other ideas Musk has floated included “building an inflatable tube with airlocks” as well as providing pumps and battery packs to help clear out water in the cave system. Though Musk’s Boring Company is known for drilling, CNN reported that the timetable for rescuing the team before further flooding occurs is likely too short to dig down to them unless authorities discover passages leading closer to the cave where they are trapped. (An effort to rescue Chilean miners via digging in 2010 took 69 days.)

This all sounds very nice in theory—transferring the children back in an air-filled pod could be less risky than impromptu dive training—but whether or not the Thai government is willing to bet on Musk’s solution as opposed to the expertise of its divers is unclear. As Slate noted, an official Thai government PR page on Facebook acknowledged that it was receiving Musk’s team, but referred only to “location tracking, water pumping or battery power.” Speaking with Slate, Anmar Mirza of the National Speleological Society’s National Cave Rescue Commission was skeptical that more technology was necessarily the solution, especially on the pumping front:

“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.”

National Speleological Society director Rick Speaect additionally told Slate that any object that blocks water from flowing within the cave could simply end up “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.”

According to Bloomberg, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of mechanical engineering Douglas Hart also cautioned that any device or tube sent into the cave would have to be built sturdily enough to withstand water pressure that could potentially reach two tons of force, as well as survive being swept or banged against the rough surface of the cave system.

The Post reported that while Musk’s nine-man team was scheduled to arrive by the end of the weekend, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said that an attempt may be forthcoming in the next few days without indicating which plan they had settled on. Osottanakorn warned that another flood could leave the soccer team with “less than 10 square meters” on the rocky platform on which they are residing.

“Now and in the next three or four days, the conditions are perfect in terms of the water, the weather and the boys’ health,” Osottanakorn said. “We have to make a clear decision on what we can do.”

[Ars Technica]





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