My flashlight’s footprint sailed over rock and rubble searching for any way forward. I turned to look at the path behind me, peering up the sharp incline I had climbed down. My crewmate’s bright yellow pant leg of his suit stuck out just enough at the mouth of the lava cave to show he was still there to act as my line of communication back to home base.
To my left was another dead end, but my light is reflected by wet rock, drawing attention to the soil smell piercing my suit- an aroma I hadn’t encountered in these tubes before. Interesting, but still no path. I turned to my right instead.
Ah -there it is!
Ahead was a larger chamber hiding behind two small openings. I kneeled to examine the lower one.
It’s possible I could get through, but certainly not in this clunky suit. I examined the one above it instead. A tight squeeze, but large enough. There’s just one problem: there’s no easy way to get back, and I’d rather not spend the next four months trapped inside of a cave.
My crewmember suggested going back, but I’m not ready to give up yet.
I climbed back towards the opening until a small crawlspace presented itself. It’s tight, but there are solid footholds on the other side. This is it.
Often, these entrances are deceptively hidden behind warped perspectives and uncomfortable entryways, as if the cave has decided we need to work in order to learn its secrets.
The chamber I see may end in four feet or four hundred. Either way, I need to find out which.
I slow my breath before army-crawling through the narrow opening and into the closed-off chamber. My suit visor fogs over and steals my sight. My external suit fan is no longer working, and I work to fix it quickly as heat builds up breathing becomes more difficult. Once it’s back up and running, its whirring crunch sounds catch me by surprise before it fires small rocks and minerals at my visor, having collected them from the ceiling. After it finishes its battery, my visor clears and suit cools down. All is well.
I start my trek, climbing over natural debris and snaking around boulders. In these tubes, I continually meet what seems to be the end of the tube before a new space presents itself. In this one, each chamber appears after a small drop, slowly easing you deeper and deeper into the Earth.
Undiscovered branching paths exist all around me, and I call out to my partner with an update, but receive no answer. I’ve lost communications, meaning I’ll need to return soon. My stomach drops – not out of nervousness, but more like a disappointed child whose parent just told them they can’t go on a carnival ride.
To my right, I notice a path curling around a large boulder. To my left – a large tunnel ahead. I take a moment to crouch down and see what I’m missing. The expansive tunnel far exceeds my flashlight’s reach.
It takes all my reason and respect for flight rules to turn away from the darkness. I take a moment to stare into those pathways and fully feel something in my gut that needs to know what’s around that corner, over that boulder, and under that crawlspace. The feeling is nostalgic, reminding me of how I felt as a child when my imagination met reality, back when everything seemed larger and promising.
I’ll be back to learn your secrets soon enough, I think to myself, before turning back.
As a bit of background, these tubes are underground caves formed from previous lava flows which are no longer active. Entryways into these are found in skylights, which are simply parts of that lava tube that have collapsed in on itself. We seek these in satellite imagery, or by scouting with our drone. Then, the crew will trek out to these areas and attempt to find a safe path down into the collapse (some can be 20-30 feet high), and then search for entrances into the non-collapsed parts of the tube with fingers crossed for a large underground system.
Exploring these can often be fruitless, as many skylights have no entryways at all. However, if you’re patient and willing to trek further than is comfortable, it’s likely you’ll be rewarded. Perhaps you’ll discover a cave with many lavacicles once formed from dripping molten lava, or encounter large lava shelves and branching side tunnels to climb around. You may find waterfall-like lava structures and wonder how they could form. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into an area underneath the desolate volcanic landscape where a small patch of collapsed ceiling has granted the sunlight permission to enter.
There, you may find life where you hadn’t expected it.
I’ve Got a Feeling
I’m always surprised when friends and colleagues who have dedicated their careers, studies, and personal time to space exploration are disinterested in such adventures.
The fact is, there is little difference in the joy I draw from exploring these lava tube caves and my affinity for human spaceflight, at least in terms of an emotional response.
It may sound corny and poetic, but this emotion -the desire to explore is an unrelenting, unignorable, and indescribable feeling. It’s a bit akin to love – the head-over-heels type that seems to exist somewhere inside your body- The type most of us adults don’t acknowledge exists, or brush off as temporary infatuation. This feeling is recognizable because passing up an opportunity to adventure isn’t just difficult – it feels wrong.
While logic has you checking your lifelines, this feeling draws your mind toward simply hoping you can continue moving forward. It reminds me of the story of Apollo 10, where the Lunar Lander was under-fueled to prevent the crew from landing on the Moon without permission.
NASA well understood the type of people who choose to explore.
The benefits of exploring are immediate. Curiosity and wonder for a unique world push us out of our comfort zone and past whatever fears we have. It has us forcing our minds to be comfortable enough to make it through that tight squeeze, or take one more step towards the unknown.
In the end, an explorer walks away with more knowledgeable about the world around them, ready to bring that information back to those who stayed at home. Those large, expansive areas and challenging entryways are now no longer unfamiliar, and therefore, no longer frightening.
This is the spirit – to want to go without needing justification past awe and wonder. To have the need to see a little bit further, and to not ask if they can get somewhere, but how? And to be able to let fear of the unknown be overridden by curiosity. An explorer may fear the dark, but will still take time to shut off their light and embrace it, just to experience a level of darkness never encountered in average life.
There are many philosophical and logical reasons to explore space. Entire books exist justifying spending money and effort on it, and thousands of poems and stories exist about the cosmos. But the desire to be the traveler- to want to enter that unrelenting and unforgiving space for the sake of being present in it is the mark of that feeling. It’s the physical manifestation of a wandering spirit, and it’s no less of a driver in a cave than in a spaceship.
When we begin to explore space, we will find answers to bring back home. We’ll begin to understand our neighborhood and place in it. Perhaps, we’ll find life somewhere among the magnificent desolation. There will be hidden places to stumble upon and slowly, the void will become more familiar and less frightening.
Space has a much higher entry cost than any adventure here on Earth, and its secrets are hidden much deeper than any cave.
Still, I can’t help but look up sometimes and wonder what’s hiding just around the corner, just a little bit further in the darkness.