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NEEMO 9 Crew Interview: Ron Garan - Mission Specialist


Portrait of Ron Garan Q: Ron, good morning. You’re going to be in the next NEEMO underwater research mission next month. What’s your background? And, how does it qualify you to be what’s known as an aquanaut?

Image to right: Portrait of astronaut Ron Garan. Credit: NASA

A: Well, I was selected as an astronaut in 2000, so for the last five years I’ve trained to fly in space on both the space shuttle and the space station. I think one of the things that I bring to this mission is a distinct lack of experience as far as medical training goes. One of the things that we want to look at on this mission is, is it possible to train somebody who has no medical experience to do medical procedures, even surgical procedures on a space mission? And so, that’s one of the things that we’re going to look at, and not just non-physicians but non-physicians that are non-surgeons. What, through tele-mentoring or tele-robotic surgery whether that’s possible or feasible.

How and why were you selected for this NEEMO project? Did you have to go through any dive cert. process and any psychological screening process? What really helped you get into this mission?

Well, it is a requirement they are certified scuba diver, and I had to go through a scuba certification. As far as the psychological training goes, or psychological screening, we didn’t do anything in addition to our screening that we do in our selection process to become an astronaut.

What’s your role going to be in the NEEMO mission?

Well, all of the crewmembers are going to be participating in almost all of the science experiments. And, we have a very aggressive science timeline. But specifically, one of the things that I’m going to be working on is to capture the lessons learned that we have as far as exploration goes. NEEMO and the Aquarius habitat is just a perfect place for us to start working out some of the exploration procedures that we’re going to use. We don’t want to lose that information. The things that we discover, we want to capture and have other crews build on that, and have that as a starting point for us to start building lunar and Mars missions.

What is NEEMO? And what’s it mean to you?

Okay. Well, NEEMO is NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations. And, what it means to me is: first of all, it’s an excellent training platform for both long-duration spaceflight and surface exploration involved in spaceflight. And, it’s also a wonderful platform for us to develop exploration procedures.

Ron Garan trains for the NEEMO 9 mission Image to left: Astronaut Ron Garan takes a moment to pose for a picture during training for his April 3-20 stay inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. Credit: NASA

This is going to be the longest NEEMO mission to date. Do you foresee any special challenges associated with the duration of this mission?

This 18-day mission is the longest NEEMO that we had to date. But it’s important that we start extending the duration. When we go back to the moon, we want us to be able to stay for extended periods of time. The size of the Aquarius habitat is about the size of the service module, which is probably not a bad analog to about the size that we would have of an established habitat on the lunar surface. So, an 18-day stay on the lunar surface in the beginning is probably reasonable. So, this is a good platform for us to, to develop the procedures and to see what that’s going to be like, and to do some surface exploration from that habitat.

Why do you believe that NEEMO’s a valuable training tool for future moon and Mars missions?

Well, I think it’s not only a valuable tool for future moon and Mars missions, but it’s also a valuable tool for station flights. I have not flown in space yet, but when I get the opportunity to do, if I’m fortunate enough to do that, then I’m going to have a lot less unanswered questions when I strap myself to the space shuttle. I’m gong to know pretty much how I work and live in a very small, confined space in a hazardous environment, in an environment that I’m dependent on the life-support systems to be able to function. And so, those are questions that I will have already have answered. And, that frees me up to do a lot more things.

Have you heard from previous NEEMO crews that has been a help in their training?

Yes, it’s been wonderful. Mike Fincke, for instance, commented on how valuable the training was for his ISS stay and, how it was a really, really good analog.

Why do you think NEEMO’s a valuable tool for training for future moon and Mars missions?

Well, NEEMO is such a valuable training tool for moon and Mars missions because, basically, specifically for the moon, if you look at it except for the view, it basically is a moon base. I mean, we have an environment where we can’t return to the surface of the Earth in a case of emergency in a very short amount of time. We are dependent on the complex life support systems. We can weigh ourselves out via buoyancy to the same as on the moon. And, so there’s a lot of analogs. We’ve got a surface to explore, and we’ve got a habitat from which to explore it, and it’s a very, very accurate analog. And, one that we hope to use. In addition to it being a good moon and Mars analog and training platform, it’s also a very good space station and shuttle analog. For instance, for myself who hasn’t flown yet when I eventually get the chance, to fly on the space shuttle and the space station, then when I strap myself to the shuttle, I will have less unanswered questions than I would have had otherwise. In other words: What is it going to be like for me to live in small, confined spaces for extended periods of time in a harsh environment where I’m dependent on life-support systems to survive? Those questions will, to some extent, be answered already, and I’ll have a lot less unknowns that I’m facing.

Why is telemedicine important to future exploration missions?

Well, telemedicine is important to future space explorations for a number of reasons. First of all, you know, we will probably take a physician with us as part of the crew on any exploration missions. But, that physician may or may not be a surgeon. And, even if he is a surgeon, he’s probably not a specialist in every type of surgery that he can do. And, even if he was, what happens if something happens to your surgeon now? So, one of the things that we’re doing is: we’re looking at tele-mentoring, both tele-mentoring and tele-robotic surgery on this mission.

So, telemedicine here, that means both tele-mentoring and tele-surgery. What are each of those, and what will your role be with those underwater?

We, we will be doing both tele-mentoring and tele-robotic surgery on our mission. In tele-mentoring, we take a non-physician and try and mentor them through surgical procedures, simulating that we’re on the moon and we have some kind of issue that we have to overcome. In tele-robotic surgery, we will actually have a surgeon—Dr. Mehran Anvari in Hamilton, Canada—who will be performing surgical operations on a simulated patient within the Aquarius habitat through robotics. We’ve done those before on NEEMO 7, but for the first time we’re going to put the delay in the time it would take at the speed of light to send the signals to the moon and back and to see what kind of effect that has. And, it’s almost three seconds just at the speed of light time to go to and from the moon. So, we need to see if that is an issue or not.

Ron Garan prepares to dive What are the simulations, the similarities between saturation diving and life undersea and living in a space vehicle around another heavenly body?

Well, the similarities of being in saturation diving and being in an extreme environment where going to the surface of the Earth is really not an option in a short amount of time for us. We are in a situation where, if we need to come back to the surface, we have to decompress for 17 hours. And so the similarity there is: any immediate emergencies, we have to deal with ourselves. We have to stabilize that situation and then start putting the process in to get back to the surface of the Earth.

Image to right: Astronaut Ron Garan prepares for “splashdown” to start his April 3-20 stay inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory. Credit: NASA

Do you think your experiences will help you better understand the challenges of living and working in space or on other planets for long periods?

Yes, I think that this will really help us start down the road of being able to figure out what it’s going to take to live and work on the moon and live and work on Mars. We’re going to be experimenting with different procedures, and we’re going to see what works and what doesn’t work and, hopefully, that we’ll be able to apply that to our exploration.

How does this kind of training differ from the other kinds of training you get as an astronaut at JSC?

I think one of the big differences between this training and other training here at JSC is that this has a lot of real-world applications to it. The experiments that we’re doing are real experiments, we’re conducting real science, and so the pressure of operating under a timeline and having researchers depending on your performance to get the data that they need I think is not only valuable for the data, but it’s also valuable training for us for future spaceflights.

You’re going to be working on two things that are very relevant to future lunar/Mars exploration, and that is establishing a communications relay station and using tracking to track the astronauts on the surface. How’s that going to work? And, what are you going to do to support that experiment?

Well, one of the things we’re doing is we’re looking back at the lessons learned we have from the Apollo Program. We’re trying to see what’s going to be different this time when we go. One of the things that’s going to be different, potentially, is that we may want to have crewmembers remaining in the habitat while other crewmembers are out exploring. We also hope to explore much farther distances than we did before. So, some of the things that we’re going to look at is building communications relay and also tracking our space exploring crewmembers, the ones that are outside the habitat. We have a system where we will be tracking our divers as we go out on our EVAs, both here in Mission Control at the EXPOC and also in the habitat itself, and we’ll have displays showing us where we are at all times. So, we’re going to develop those procedures, but we’re also going to see: is this really something that we need to do? How critical is it to have accurate mapping and tracking of space-exploring crewmembers?

Will you be having situations where you have two explorers outside and two inside monitoring from the habitat like you would on the moon or Mars?

Yes, we will. We will have crewmembers that are, just like we do in a spacewalk, in the space station or in the space shuttle. We’re going to have crewmembers that are responsible for that spacewalk within the vehicle, and we’re going to have the ones that are outside the vehicle. We’re going to work on the coordination of that because it’s a little bit different in surface exploration.

Are you going to be using robotic helpers on the outside the habitat exploration activities in NEEMO 9?

All right, this is a very exciting part of this mission, is the amount of robotics that we’re using, specifically in the exploration robotics. Throughout spaceflight, we’ve used robotics before in conjunction with human spaceflight. But, traditionally, the exploration end of that has always been robotic exploration and human exploration. And, really for the first time, for surface exploration, we’re going to see what we can do in collaboration with the two.

Are you going to be working with robots as a team? And, is that going to help improve your productivity?

We are going to be working with robots as a team. Specifically, some of the things that we’re going to do is: we’re going to send the robots where we can’t go. Simulating that it’s the bottom of a crater on the moon or, or whatever. But, what we’re going to use them for is, we can’t, like we said, we can’t go to the surface of the ocean. We can’t get to the surface; so if we need to retrieve things or do some mapping or do some exploration near the surface, we’re going to send the robots there to do it. Also, the robots are going to help us with a search. We have a scenario where we have to get to some cargo supplies, and, as opposed to sending a human crew out to start the search, we’re going to do that robotically. We’re also going to use robotics for some of our construction tasks.

Are you going to be using robots inside the habitat?

Yes. In addition to the robots that we’re going to be using outside the habitat in exploration, we’re also going to be using medical robots within the habitat. Both tele-surgical robots that will be operated from Canada, and also robots that we will operate will be simulated inside the, the body.

What are you most looking forward to on this mission?

Well, I’m looking forward to many things on this mission. I’m looking forward to not only, visiting a beautiful coral reef but actually becoming a resident of that coral reef. I’m very much looking forward to the exploration activities and the development of exploration procedures that we’re going to do. But, I’m also looking forward to the telemedicine. Not just for its exploration aspects, which are very significant, but also for its applications on Earth. For whatever reason, if an area of the Earth does not have access to a major medical center, any of those areas will benefit from the technology that we’re developing.

What are you least looking forward to?

Well, I think what I’m least looking forward to is separation from my family. And, that’s spaceflight training in itself. You have to develop ways to cope with the fact that you’re separated from your loved ones for extended amounts of time. Although it’s important for spaceflight training, that’s what I’m least looking forward to.

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