The Earth’s Last Frontier

NASA and caves

Because caves provide such an extreme environment, as NASA pondered how astronauts would handle traveling in extreme isolation in confined spaces, they took to caves in the 1960s and ‘70s to find out. Among their most famous experiments, they worked with French speleologist, Michel Siffre, in the new field of chronobiology. NASA placed him alone in Texas’ Midnight Cave for six months. In the absence of time cues, his ‘day’ ranged up to 36 hours of wakefulness and 12 hours of sleep. Though he was fed substantial meals and had all the gear and comforts he needed, by day 79 he started experiencing extreme depression and pondered suicide, writing in his journal, “Desolation overwhelms me,” and, reflecting on one of his earlier underground experiments, noted, “I emerged as a half-crazed disjointed marionette.” He lasted 205 days in this Texas cave and is recognized as having the “official” record of the longest uninterrupted stay underground. Not even close to the Survivor’s 344 uninterrupted days in Priest’s Grotto.

“Desolation overwhelms me" – Michel Siffre spends 205 days underground

Isolation like Siffre’s is often associated with mental illness, clinical depression, and suicidal tendencies – observations common to prisoners in solitary confinement. Psychologists realize humans have a fundamental need for relationships, which undoubtedly helped the survivors in their long stay underground. It also helped the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010, as the world tried to rescue them.

Problems can persist long after a person is back above ground — long absences of sunlight can pose problems for muscles, bones, eyes and other organs; there’s muscle loss from lack of activity; and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and nightmares from the extreme psychological experience. With all we know today about the science of survival, what the survivors achieved is all the more extraordinary.

Adventure Cinematographer Rob Franklin:
“I was stunned. That was my reaction when I first heard of the survivors’ remarkable story.”

Rob has traveled the globe and shot it all: from polar bears in the Arctic to the world’s greatest caves for the BBC’s renowned series, Planet Earth. When he was brought on board to shoot adventure scenes for NO PLACE ON EARTH, he couldn’t help but think of the time he spent underground in a cave:

“The longest time was a little over 10 days, whilst filming a famous cave called Lechuguilla in New Mexico, USA. This cave is unusual — mostly dry and very warm. None of the usual insulating clothes required, just shorts and a t-shirt. We had all the nourishing food, fresh water, and gear we needed. My stay was quite comfortable, yet the experience changed me and my perception.

“There’s no sunrise or sunset, no weather or seasons. Time becomes irrelevant. 3:00pm could just as easily be 3:00am. There was no longer breakfast, lunch or dinner, just times to eat. We found ourselves working shorter days and sleeping less. Colour perception changes, too. Everything becoming muted, and despite having the highest tech lamps, my eyes still strained to see into the shadows.

“I have been exploring and filming in caves over half my life. A cave is wondrous, but a harsh, alien environment requiring dependable light to find your way around, and more importantly, your way out. What makes the survivors’ story so incredible is they had no real knowledge of caves or even a desire to explore them. They had no maps, special clothing, no high calorie food, and so little light. But they did have a human spirit and courage that, even with the experiences I have had, is difficult to put into perspective. I am profoundly humbled by their unconquerable desire to survive and have relished the opportunity to use my skills to help, in some part, tell their incredible story.”

- Rob Franklin

Informative Links About Caves

For more information about the great adventure caves of the world:

For a list of the longest caves in the world (Ozerna, 14th on the list, is No Place on Earth’s Priest’s Grotto):

For even more about caves, visit The National Speleological Society