NASA Turns to NURP and NOAA's Aquarius for Training
This story entered on 27th Jul, 2004 07:02:02 AM PST
Aquanauts live in undersea habitat to simulate conditions
Person interviewed: Aquarius
By Michael Coren
Friday, July 23, 2004 Posted: 8:56 PM EDT (0056 GMT)
KEY LARGO, Florida (CNN) -- On a rocking boat in the Atlantic Ocean,
astronaut Dave Williams struggled into his wetsuit. After helping
build the International Space Station in 1998, a dive into the sea
was the unlikely beginning of his journey back into space.
Williams, 50, a crew member of the Space Shuttle Columbia, was preparing
to visit an underwater habitat called Aquarius, located under the
sea off the Florida Keys.
NASA is using the marine laboratory to train humans and test technology
for expeditions into space, the moon and Mars.
"The objective is to provide an analog close to space where the
consequences are really life and death," said Marc Reagan, mission
commander for NASA's sixth Extreme Environment Mission Operations
program or NEEMO. "Rookies can make their mistakes before they get
The 82-ton yellow steel structure, anchored beneath the sea off
Key Largo, south of Miami, houses a rotating crew of scientists,
engineers and NASA astronaut candidates known as "aquanauts." The
pressurized habitat, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration and operated by the University of North Carolina
at Wilmington , allows humans to work in the ocean almost indefinitely
with a technique called saturation diving in which divers never
ascend to the surface.
"It's more than a simulation," said Williams, scheduled to fly to
the space station in 2006. "It's the real thing."
The extensive training -- submerged in one of the world's most hostile
environments --is designed to prepare humans and technology for
the rigors of life in a vacuum.
In October, Williams and several others will take the plunge on
NEEMO 7, NASA's next underwater venture.
The most recent crew, NEEMO 6, just finished a nine-day stint aboard
Aquarius on July 21. The program tested exercise equipment, silver-treated
textiles to kill bacteria and infrared tracking systems likely to
find their way to the space station.
Aquanauts say living under the sea is the best way to train for
space and study the effects of isolated missions.
"Everything you do depends on how well you planned and how well
you packed for it," said Nicholas Patrick, a NEEMO 6
aquanaut and mechanical engineer with NASA. "It's great preparation
for space flight."
Aquarius crews live for days or weeks at the bottom the ocean. They
descend about 60 feet to the sea floor in the Florida Keys National
Marine Sanctuary where Aquarius is anchored. The aquanauts assist
scientists with research into coral health and conduct excursions
that mimic spacewalks critical to the International Space Station.
After a few days, astronauts more accustomed to gazing up at the
sky come to see the oceans in a new light.
"Before coming down here, most of us didn't know the difference
between coral and a sponge," said Patrick. "I used to think of fish
as wheat, something you harvest. I
can't think the word 'supply' and 'fish' in the same sentence now."
To aspiring astronauts, and even seasoned pros, the alien environment
of the sea presents the ultimate challenge.
"The state of technology (for undersea exploration) is still in
its infancy," said mission commander Reagan, an aerospace engineer
for NASA. "We have 90 years and two countries' worth of experience
in space exploration -- and maybe a dozen real serious underwater
habitats. A lot more manpower and GDP has gone into space exploration."
The pressures of underwater environments, both physical and psychological,
have daunted explorers for centuries.
For a brief period in the 1960s, underwater habitats flourished.
As least 65 dotted the marine landscape, such as Jacques Cousteau's
Conshelf project and American programs such as Tektite, Hydrolab
and the US Navy's SeaLab program.
The U.S. underwater exploration paralleled America's program to
put humans on the moon. The Navy's series of sturdy deep-sea habitats
called SeaLab pushed the boundaries of human exploration, pioneering
technology allowing humans to live hundreds of feet below the surface.
By the 1970s, funding had dried up.
"All of (the habitats) are gone," said Jim Buckley, habitat operations
manager for Aquarius during the last 12 years. "Aquarius is the
last one used for science."
From marine to Mars Aquarius sells its service to scientists and
astronauts alike through the National Undersea Research Center.
For about $10,000 a day, aquanauts have access to the habitat --
and the ocean - with all the comforts of home: six bunks, a shower,
instant hot water, a microwave, a refrigerator, air conditioning
and computers. (Although,
aquanauts sheepishly admit, the habitat toilet is not working).
The price tag, NASA officials quickly point out, includes crew support
and costs just a tiny fraction of what is required by the International
Since NEEMO officials bill the habitat as the next staging area
for the moon and Mars, some hope the coral-encrusted
habitat will be a focus of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration
announced this year.
New NEEMO missions are also refining technology for interplanetary
spaceflight. The space agency, in partnership with the Canadian
Space Agency, is planning its
most ambitious set of biomedical field tests in an extreme environment.
"The NEEMO 7 mission is going to be leaps and bounds beyond what
we have done previously," says Michelle Lucas, operations planner.
"We see it expanding beyond just NASA."
A robotic surgical device -- courtesy of the Center for Minimally
Invasive Surgery in Canada -- will perform remote abdominal surgery
on a dummy from 6,000 miles away. Other biomedical experiments will
accompany the aquanauts testing the boundaries of remote surgery
and how to deliver medical care on long-duration space voyages.
But keeping together life and limb - not to mention technology --
under water is daunting.
"Going undersea requires a much more robust design," says Reagan.
"Pressure does horrendous things to technology."
The crews of Aquarius constantly battle complications. Computers
fail randomly. Sea life can interfere with gauges, hoses and life
support systems. And nothing is ever completely dry.
The effects on the human body also weigh on crew members.
The humidity of Aquarius leads to skin and ear infections. At 2.5
times the air pressure at the surface -- about 14.7 lbs per square
inch -- the dense air saturates the blood stream with dissolved
gasses. Any attempt to reach the surface requires 17-hours of decompression
to clear the body of nitrogen.
Researchers are learning more about he limits of humans and hardware
aboard Aquarius. Yet despite NEEMO's promise to open up the doors
to space, the deep sea is still a mystery.
"We're operating very close to the conservative end of undersea
habitation," says Reagan about the Aquarius habitat, designed for
depths of up to 120 feet. "The
challenges go up exponentially as you go deeper."
News organization: CNN.com
Air time: Fri, July 23 2004 at 8:56 AM Eastern
Name: Andy Shepard
Tel: (910) 962-2446