NASA returned to the bottom of the sea this week for a nine-day mission at the FIU Aquarius Reef Base.
Four astronauts are participating in NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), conducting activities on the ocean floor that will inform future International Space Station and exploration activities. These studies provide information that correlates directly to life aboard the space station, where crew members must frequently perform critical tasks that present constraining factors similar to those experienced in an undersea environment. Since 2001, NASA has conducted missions at Aquarius, with NEEMO 18 being the second NASA mission to take up residence at the undersea research lab since FIU assumed operations in 2013.
“It is both challenging and exciting for our astronaut crews to participate in these undersea missions in preparation for spaceflight,” says Bill Todd, NEEMO project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “It is critical that we perform science applicable to NASA’s exploration goals in a high-fidelity space operational context. The extreme environment of life undersea is as close to being in space as possible.”
NEEMO 18 focuses on studies in behavioral health and performance, human health issues and habitability. Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is commanding the mission. He is joined by NASA astronauts Jeanette Epps and Mark Vande Hei and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
“NEEMO has been and continues to be incredibly valuable to the Medina Aquarius Program,” said Thomas Potts, director of FIU Aquarius. “NEEMO missions include significant public exposure and outreach opportunities and have been instrumental in the adoption and transition of advanced technologies to marine science and educational applications.”
Combining training and research with education, NASA has welcomed students from the FIU School of Journalism and Mass Communication to report on the mission. The current mission is one of two NASA missions to be conducted at Aquarius this year. NEEMO 19 will descend on the world’s only undersea research lab in September, evaluating tele-mentoring operations for the ESA. Tele-mentoring is when a crew member is given instruction for a task by an expert who is located remotely but is virtually present via video and voice connections. NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik will command this second mission. He will be joined by Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen, ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, and Herve Stevenin, ESA’s Head of Extravehicular Activity Training at the European Astronaut Center in Germany. Both NEEMO missions will include technology investigations, training and exploring new procedures while in flight.
Aquarius, supported by FIU’s Medina Aquarius Program, is located approximately 60 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, 5.4 nautical miles off the coast of Key Largo. Submerged by NOAA in 1993, Aquarius provides unparalleled access to study coral reefs and marine life while also offering opportunities to test state-of-the-art undersea technology, train specialized divers and astronauts. Scientists can dive and live aboard Aquarius for days, even weeks at a time.