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Going Deep to Reach the Heavens

 John F. Kennedy referred to space as the "new ocean." Today, NOAA and NASA are underscoring the similarities of these two frontiers.

By Taylor Sisk

Diver outside of NOAA’s Aquarius at 65 feet under the sea.

Diver outside of NOAA’s Aquarius at 62 feet under the sea.

“We describe Aquarius as a window into the ocean,” says director Steven Miller. "It certainly affords a spectacular view."

Aquarius is a one-of-a-kind, 43 x 20 x 16.5-foot laboratory, operated by NOAA's (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. It’s located three miles from shore off Tavernier, Florida, in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

NOAA’s Aquarius is cool. And it’s accessible: Web casts of Aquarius missions are viewed in classrooms and aquariums across the world and its Web site provides live Web cam coverage during missions. “We describe Aquarius as a window into the ocean,” says director Steven Miller.

Scientific research is certainly the foundation and priority for NOAA’s Aquarius. Each year, NOAA’s Undersea Research Program provides funding to scientists to come to NOAA’s Aquarius to pursue their particular research interests as they relate to NOAA's mission.

Beyond the scientific research, and in conjunction with it, says Miller, “Aquarius is about outreach and education.” And assisting in this regard – in raising NOAA’s and Aquarius’ public profile – are missions NOAA’s Undersea Research Program has been conducting over the past three years in collaboration with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

ANALOGOUS EXTREMES

NASA and NOAA share much in common – most particularly the environments in which they operate. Within Aquarius, and in depths of a hundred feet and more around it, space station astronauts now experience the only truly analogous environment to that which they will encounter in space.

Bill Todd is a NASA simulations supervisor. For 17 years he’s been training astronauts in a great variety of environments.

“This is not at all a simulation,” says Todd of Aquarius. “That’s the wonderful thing about it. Our people get simulation experience but they don’t get a lot of human behavioral-type lessons.

We’ve done different things – like at the National Outdoor Leadership School and Cold Lake in Canada – where we send people out for a week in the wild. But [prior to the

NOAA's Aquarius America's Innerspace Station

NOAA's Aquarius, America's Innerspace Station

recent Aquarius missions] we hadn’t been doing anything like this at all.”

NASA’s work with NOAA’s Aquarius is in fact the revival of an earlier ocean-space initiative.

In 1965, while on leave from NASA, Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts (the “Right Stuff” guys), participated in a Navy Sea Lab project, spending 30 days living and conducting experiments some 200 feet in the deep off the coast of California.

“I was curious about the ocean,” says Carpenter today, “and how technology could be transferred. It’s more arduous and not as glamorous [underwater]. It’s bitter cold and dark. But they resemble each other in terms of isolation and confinement and that in both you’re out of your element.

“There are a lot of mysteries involved in living and working underwater. We answered lots of questions and brought back some new clues.”

Carpenter was a friend of Bill Todd’s dad. Todd had been working for NASA in astronaut training for 10 years when Carpenter began introducing him to people in the undersea community.

“It really started to jell,” Todd recalls, “and I saw there was a real potential value in undersea habitats. So we got introduced to Dr. Miller here and were able to put the program together.”

MISSIONS EVOLVE

The first NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission was conducted in October 2001.

NASA astronaut at work under the sea with a familiar cartoon character at his side.

NASA astronaut at work under the sea with a familiar cartoon character at his side.

“We did our first test with a crew loaded with experience,” says Todd, “super-veteran space fliers. They came back saying, ‘This is the best thing short of space flight that there could possibly be.’”

For scientists and astronauts alike, Aquarius offers a unique experience in several regards. It allows them to live and work on the seafloor for extended periods using saturation diving technology, which significantly increases the time divers can spend working in ocean depths, and provides them with much more convenient access to tools and computers. An underwater laboratory such as NOAA’s Aquarius allows scientists to observe and study the subjects of their research in real-time.

Aquarius is supported by a buoy on the surface that provides power, life support and communications, and by a 24-hour shore-based mission control.

Four NASA astronauts and two Aquarius technicians pose inside Aquarius’ bunkroom during the June 2003 mission.

Four NASA astronauts and two Aquarius technicians pose inside Aquarius’ bunkroom during the June 2003 mission.

NEEMO missions are now conducted for both experienced and novice space fliers. The longest mission to date, 14 days, was conducted this past June by a four-person NASA team and two Aquarius support technicians. There have been five missions thus far. A 45-day mission is now being discussed.

“The program has grown,” says Todd. “Now they’re going on full-blown undersea research missions. You’re in an extreme environment and you have to be careful, you have to follow procedures, you have to work together, you have to use your training. The missions have gotten more and more complex, such that now it looks like a space mission in virtually every facet: all the little housekeeping things that have to go on during the day; task lists of 30-plus items that have to be done. They eat space food; they talk with their families.

“This will never be the perfect analog,” Todd allows, “it can’t be. But we’re making it pretty close; we really are, in every possible way.

“It takes 16 ½ hours to go through decompression to get back to the surface from Aquarius. You can’t go back to the surface without that decompression. If you do, you’re going to get bent; you’re going to get hurt. You may be down there and look up and say, ‘Hey, there’s the surface right there.’ It’s the same as in space. You can sit there and look out the window, and it’s gorgeous, and there’s the Earth. It takes about 17 hours to de-orbit from the space station. That’s a very close analog.”

Moreover, Todd explains, “Having a facility from which you can conduct research, working as a proxy scientist, is huge. Astronauts aren’t always scientists per say, but they’re doing proxy science for a principal investigator located in another place. There’s methodology to learn on how to be a good proxy scientist, on how to make sure you get that science completed for that investigator the best that you can.

“We can practice that function here [aboard NOAA's Aquarius] and develop those relationships before an experiment ever goes into space. Nowhere else do we get the opportunity to have real astronauts in a real extreme environment doing real scientific research on experiments that haven’t gone into space yet. Having been tested here, the potential for success skyrockets.”

Among those experiments is calibration testing of equipment to shut out white noise. Another is experimentation with nutrition; another examines the duplication of viruses in extreme environments.

NASA astronaut collecting data on coral reef health.

NASA astronaut collecting data on coral reef health.

The astronauts also perform a variety of training exercises outside Aquarius. For example, they take coordinates and map an area, or test the quality of a communications system.

“If we go to Mars,” Todd explains, “the first thing we’re going to do is set up camp. It’s like going camping; you’ve got to set up your tent, you’ve got to find where the water supply is, you want to see what natural resources are available.

“It’s the same thing with the first couple of dives on a NEEMO mission. You learn the topography of the reef, you take measurements with your compass, you take pictures, you write on your slate, and you communicate that information back to the [mission control center in Houston].”

Then there are team-building and leadership exercises, “to give an astronaut the opportunity to step up and, given the tools and given the requirements, show their leadership skills, and demonstrate and execute a plan in an extreme environment.”

And as the astronauts are learning about space from the ocean, they’re conducting research for NOAA, most recently collecting data on the health of coral reef.

“It’s a good NOAA-NASA crossover thing,” Todd affirms. “It’s strong in every possible way; a strong relationship.” And it turns out that the coral work is also an excellent skills test in itself. “They have to come up with a plan; they think they’re going to get more done than they actually can…. So they go back and talk about how to better attack it.”

A COOL JOB

Viewing the fish from inside Aquarius.

View from inside the Aquarius.

“It took a long time,” says Scott Carpenter of this NOAA-NASA cooperative. “The potential is just now being realized.

“It’s in the charter of NOAA to work with outside agencies, like NOAA,” Todd says, “and we’re doing just that. What better organization to be working with than NOAA’s Undersea Research Program Center? [The Johnson Space Center] and human space flight is to NASA what NOAA’s Undersea Research Program is to NOAA – and we’re working together.

“People are coming out of the woodwork with these wonderful ideas and concepts of how they could use this as a platform. “The educational outreach opportunities for both NOAA and NASA with NOAA’s Aquarius are huge. It’s a very visual environment. The kids see it and they see an astronaut and an aquanaut working together in the habitat, talking about what a cool job they have. We really need to capitalize on that opportunity.”


Links about NOAA-NASA missions in NOAA’s Aquarius:

Mission 1 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/archive/2001/10_2001/expd.htm
Mission 2 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/archive/2002/05_2002/expd.htm
Mission 3 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/archive/2002/07_2002/expd.htm
Mission 4 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/archive/2002/09_2002/expd.htm
Mission 5 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/2003/06_2003/expd.htm
ABC News - http://abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/US/techtv_astrotraining030707.html

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Updated: March 28, 2005