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
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).
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
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
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.
“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
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.
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
NASA astronaut collecting data on coral
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
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:
1 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/archive/2001/10_2001/expd.htm
2 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/archive/2002/05_2002/expd.htm
3 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/archive/2002/07_2002/expd.htm
4 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/archive/2002/09_2002/expd.htm
5 - http://www.uncw.edu/aquarius/2003/06_2003/expd.htm
News - http://abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/US/techtv_astrotraining030707.html
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