NEEMO 14 Aquanauts Successfully Complete 14-Day Underwater Mission
On May 24, 2010 the NEEMO 14 aquanaut crew returned to the surface, completing a 14-day underwater mission to gather research that will benefit future missions into space.
Aquarius, located in an environment like the abyssal planes encountered on a Martian or lunar surface, is an undersea laboratory used during the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO). For two weeks, it was home to astronauts Chris Hadfield and Thomas Marshburn, undersea engineer Andrew Abercromby, and scientist Steve Chappell. The base, located several miles off the coast of Key Largo, Fla., is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) and managed by the University of North Carolina. The goal of the mission was to experience and overcome challenges in an environment that parallels the microgravity environments experienced in space.
According to Bill Todd, NEEMO Project lead, the mission proved challenging, and successful.
"The timeline, the pace and the number of tasks were... our most complicated undersea mission by far," said Todd. "This crew (made up of astronauts, an engineer and a scientist) came together quickly to make it safe and successful which is really an interesting point if you think about the mix of people NASA would want to put together for a two year Martian mission."
"The undersea world is a unique environment (on Earth) because we can simulate all types of gravities, not just low gravity. It can also be analogous to the moon, or to Mars, or just about any type of gravitational effect," said Todd.
Crewmembers, also known as aquanauts, conducted experiments relating to physiological and psychological changes, performed some spacewalking -- EVA or extravehicular activity -- tests that will be used to refine new spacesuits, tested new long distance telecommunication techniques, and carried out a myriad of other scientific investigations.
"The mission was themed around human interaction with devices and vehicles which [NASA] may one day use on another planetary surface... the challenge was how the crew interfaced with the tools and vehicles," said Todd. One of the benefits of working underwater was that it allowed the team to weigh out the space suits to different centers of gravity.
By adding different weights to the crew's underwater center of gravity rigs it allowed them to experience the effects of the gravity in space, on the Moon and on Mars. It also allowed the team to experiment with spacesuit weight and balance. For example, they learned that "heavier" spacesuits allowed the crew member to perform tasks requiring higher levels of force, such as "shoveling" "lunar or Martian" dirt, more efficiently.
In other tests, the aquanauts used a dummy to practice rescuing an incapacitated crewmember, helping them to better understand emergency procedures. They also used "degraded com (communication)" mode to dispatch transmissions, illustrating the difficulties of performing tasks with limited communications.
One test called for the top-side mission control crew to replicate the 20 minute delayed communication a crew on Mars would experience.
"[For NASA] it's a totally different way to operate. You're not getting this constant communication with your ground support team, so they have to learn how to compensate," said Todd. Without face-to-face communications, the crew realized that "degraded com" can take its toll, increasing the stress because the crew had to make crucial decisions autonomously.
In addition to the numerous research projects, the aquanauts found time to host several educational events, which were recorded and published on YouTube. These videos may be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/user/NASAanalogTV
For the crewmembers, the experience of living underwater is something they will not soon forget. In Chappell's words, "It brought a great perspective and served to further remind us of the amazing expedition we are on both as aquanauts and as we work to help the human race expand into the universe."
The information gathered during the mission will be used by both NASA and NOAA.