The world is watching anxiously as Thai Navy SEALs and other volunteer divers have begun ferrying members of a boys soccer team out of the cave complex in Northern Thailand where they've been trapped for more than two weeks. As of today, eight of the boys had been brought out of the cave safely, with four more team members, and their 25-year-old coach--remaining behind. Sadly, one rescue diver lost his life while placing oxygen tanks in the cave.
The team had entered the cave for a team-building exercise that involved writing their names on a far wall despite warnings that it was dangerous during the rainy season. Rising waters cut off their exit, and forced them to retreat miles inside the cave. It took expert cave divers more than a week to locate them.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Elon Musk spent the last few days working with a team of SpaceX engineers to build a small underwater pod--an oxygen-filled cylinder that was originally a liquid oxygen transfer tube from the Falcon rocket--to transport the team's members safely out of the cave underwater. He calls it "basically a tiny, kid-size submarine" although the pod has no propulsion of its own. On Sunday, he tweeted video of the pod being tested at a California high school swimming pool.
Simulating maneuvering through a narrow passage pic.twitter.com/2z01Ut3vxJ-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 9, 2018
Will the rocket-shaped chamber ever be used to bring the Thai soccer players out of their cave? Probably not. First of all, with more rain coming and water level likely to rise, combined with a dwindling oxygen supply within the cave, divers had to begin the rescue operation immediately despite considerable dangers. The first rescues went smoothly, and were completed ahead of schedule, making everyone involved optimistic about the chances of bringing all of the children and their coach out safely.
Besides, as some expert rescue divers have pointed out, the tube may prove impractical to maneuver through the twists and turns of the cave. The divers, working in complete darkness and against strong current for hours at a time, are already pushing the limits of the possible just getting to and from the boys. It's clear from Musk's video that the pod takes a fair amount of effort to pull along underwater. Trying to drag it for hours in those conditions might prove too much even for SEAL-level cave divers. The divers have already brought full face masks into the cave for the children to use as they are brought out, which means they can breathe normally and be carried along in the divers' arms. That seems likely to be the best solution.
But it's still great that Musk created the pod. Here's why:
1. It may have other uses.
In open-water situations where a diver is disabled or unconscious, a tool like this could prove very useful. As Musk notes in his tweets, it also has potential as an escape pod for space travelers.
2. He stepped up.
Musk famously has more going on at any moment than seems humanly possible. But even for him, this is a high-pressure time, with Tesla Model 3 production finally in full swing after costly delays and even sabotage. He could be forgiven for concentrating on his own problems at this delicate time but instead he got the pod built in less than a week. As The Next Web points out, he's setting a great example for other tech CEOs.
3. He didn't do it in a vacuum.
Some critics accuse him of going out and building something without fully understanding the intricacies of cave diving. He probably doesn't understand cave diving, but for a good reason--with 13 young people trapped in a cave without enough oxygen, there wasn't time to learn about it. But he didn't just build this thing on a whim, at least not according to his tweets. He says he's been "iterating" the unit based on feedback from the Thai government. That seems like exactly the right approach. And who knows? It might prove useful after all.