On June 18, instead of blasting off for space, an international crew of astronauts “splashed down” on Aquarius for NEEMO 22, a 10-day mission to practice spacewalks and other tasks that will be necessary during trips to the International Space Station and deep space.
The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project (called NEEMO for short) is sending groups of astronauts, engineers and scientists to live in Aquarius for up to three weeks at a time to practice for space exploration 3.5 miles off Key Largo, 62 feet below the surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Aquarius consists of a land based mission control center, an underwater habitat and a surface life support buoy that houses power generators, air compressors and data connections. The interior of the habitat contains air compressed to an equivalent of approximately 48 feet of sea water. The sea-base has a 400-square feet interior that houses a kitchen, lab and bunks for six divers.
NASA is developing the technologies and systems to transport future explorers to multiple destinations, each with its own unique and extreme space environment.
According to NASA: “During NEEMO missions, the aquanauts are able to simulate living on a spacecraft and test spacewalk techniques for future space missions. Working in space and underwater environments requires extensive planning and sophisticated equipment. The underwater condition has the additional benefit of allowing NASA to ‘weight’ the aquanauts to simulate different gravity environments.”
Because future planetary science concepts and strategies may be considered analogous in some ways to those of the earth’s oceans, the astronaut team also performed marine science under the guidance of FIU marine scientists.
“The close parallels of inner and outer space exploration were clearly demonstrated during this undersea mission,” NEEMO Project Lead Bill Todd said. “The daily seafloor traverses, or extravehicular activities in space jargon, are jam packed with technology and operations concept testing, as well as complex marine science. In the interior of Aquarius, aquanauts and astronauts tackled an array of experiments and human research related to long duration space travel.”
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren commanded the NEEMO 22 mission. Lindgren was part of space station Expeditions 44 and 45 in 2015, when he spent 141 days living and working in the extreme environment of space. He conducted two spacewalks on his first spaceflight.
Other joining Lindgren included European Space Agency astronaut Pedro Duque, Trevor Graff, a Jacobs Engineering employee working as a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston; and research scientist Dom D’Agostino from the University of South Florida and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.
The crew’s objectives included testing spaceflight countermeasure equipment, technology for precisely tracking equipment in a habitat and studies of body composition and how sleep is affected in the habitat environment.
The crew also assessed ESA sponsored equipment that will help crew members evacuate someone who has been injured on a lunar spacewalk.
Graff has served as topside support for earlier NEEMO missions, but this is the first time that he has been a part of the underwater crew. He became an aquanaut on this mission after 24 hours in the habitat.
“As a scuba enthusiast and dive instructor, I was always interested in being involved in NEEMO,” Graff said. “So, it was kind of like this perfect marriage between my love of space and everything we do here at JSC, but also my passion of scuba diving,” said Graff.
With NEEMO, Graff was able to blend his love for aquatics and passion for geology.
“I’m not a marine scientist,” Graff said. “I’m a geologist, but missions like this largely allow NASA to better understand how we can conduct science operations on other planetary surfaces. The marine science we conducted during NEEMO acts as a great proxy for evaluating a number of tools, techniques and technologies we envision for planetary surface science. We went out on EVAs (Extravehicular Activities, or spacewalks) from Aquarius, where we measured and collecting coral samples for authentic marine science that our partners at Florida International University use in their research, and they’re publishing papers on the results,” Graff added.
Aquarius has been a valuable tool for marine science and now space exploration. But, it has endured some rough times, including funding crises and changes in operational management.
It was originally planned for deployment on a rail system, which would facilitate bringing it to the surface, near Catalina Island in Southern California. It spent some time off the island of Saint Croix until Hurricane Hugo devastated the Island in 1989.
Aquarius was retrieved by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, in 1990 and redeployed to Conch Reef in 1993. The university operated Aquarius for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration until late 2012 when federal funding dried up.
In 2013 Florida International University was awarded a grant to continue stewardship for NOAA. Since then, it developed a business model based on research and education activities supported by government funding, fees and donations.
To enter the habitat the NEEMO 22 Mission astronauts went through a “moon pool,” took off their gear at a “wet porch” and then took a fresh water shower before going into the “main lock.”
“Salt water plays havoc on the equipment,” says Tom Potts, FIU Aquarius reef base director, explaining the need for the shower. The habitat is kept at a comfortable 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
Every new scuba diver is taught that there are maximum limits, based on time and depth under water, which must be closely monitored to avoid the “bends,” or decompression sickness. If a diver does not adhere to the limits, he or she must stop at specified depths while ascending to the surface.
These so-called decompression stops help the diver’s body remove excess inert gas through respiration. The time length of these stops is based on mathematical models relating to the absorption of inert gases by the human body at the increased ambient pressures found the deeper a diver goes under the sea.
Aquarius aquanauts, or in the case of the NEEMO missions, astronauts, use a technique known as saturation diving, meaning their tissues absorb the maximum inert gas for a given depth. They are able to spend days-to-weeks underwater conducting research for nine hours a day at depths up to 95 feet.
“That’s the beauty of Aquarius,” explained Potts, “divers can spend two days or weeks underwater and the decompression time, conducted in a safe warm environment, remains the same-15 hours and 45 minutes.”
For more on NASA’s NEEMO missions go to: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NEEMO/index.html
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at email@example.com.