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Science & Space

NASA turns to deep sea training for space

Aquanauts live in undersea habitat to simulate conditions in space

By Michael Coren

The Aqurius habitat in the Florida Keys.
The Aquarius habitat 62 feet underwater in the Florida Keys.
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NASA using a marine laboratory to train astros
Gallery: Aquarius

• Interactive: Underwater Laboratory
• UNCW: Aquarius habitatexternal link
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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

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 to space."

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."

The silhouette of Aquanaut John Herrington aboard Aquarius.
Aquanaut John Herrington aboard Aquarius.

Aquarius crews live for days or weeks at the bottom of 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."

Oceanic environment

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 wet porch provides access to the sea from the habitat.
The wet porch provides access to the sea from the habitat.

The price tag, NASA officials quickly point out, includes crew support and costs just a tiny fraction of what is required by the International Space Station.

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."

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