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NASA Crew's Underwater Research Focuses on Space
07.08.04
 
Four NASA crewmembers are getting an in-depth start in learning about techniques and technologies that could serve space travelers voyaging to the moon and beyond.

The group will spend more than a week 60 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic off the Florida coast. Their environment is in many ways as potentially hostile as that of space or other planets.

The sixth NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) crew will be led by Astronaut John Herrington on its July 12 to 21 stay under water. NEEMO 6 also will test equipment that could one day fly in space.

NEEMO 6 crewmembers
The NEEMO 6 crew, from left, are Commander John Herrington and Mission Specialists Tara Ruttley, Nicholas Patrick, and Doug Wheelock.

Herrington is a veteran Shuttle astronaut and spacewalker. Astronauts Doug Wheelock and Nick Patrick, and biomedical engineer Tara Ruttley will join him on the NEEMO 6 crew in the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory off Key Largo, Fla.

In addition to looking ahead to exploration and development of space beyond low Earth orbit, the crew will look at equipment for the International Space Station (ISS). Crewmembers also will do human physiology research and research on coral reefs.

Sea turtle
A crewmember photographed this sea turtle near the sea floor.
NEEMO crewmembers
Crewmembers practice underwater for long-duration space habitation.
NEEMO 5 crewmember Peggy Whitson
NEEMO 5 crewmember Peggy A. Whitson performs an extravehicular activity.

NASA ISS Science Officer Mike Fincke, who arrived at the Space Station April 21 for a six-month stay, is a NEEMO veteran -- he was a NEEMO 2 aquanaut. He might get a chance, if schedules permit, to talk from space with his NEEMO successors in Aquarius.

"NEEMO is not a simulation. It's a real mission with real risks in a hazardous environment. If we're going to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars, we're going to need economical ways to get our feet wet here on Earth," said NEEMO 6 Mission Director Marc Reagan.

Excursions outside Aquarius have a lot of parallels to spacewalks. Both are planned with a series of objectives and a timeline for reaching each. Like a spacewalk, each dive has a maximum duration based on consumables available. Astronaut crewmembers frequently remark on the similarity of working underwater and in space.

University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) systems engineers Craig Cooper and Joe March will work with the NASA crew in Aquarius. Their jobs will be to maintain Aquarius systems.

The facility is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, operated by UNCW and funded by NOAA's Undersea Research Program. The NEEMO missions are a cooperative project of NASA, NOAA and UNCW. Aquarius is about the size of the Space Station's Destiny laboratory.

Aquarius is 45 feet long and 13 feet in diameter. It rests on the bottom in 62 feet of water off Key Largo, in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

It has a mission control in Florida and a control room called the Exploration Planning Operations Center at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. A buoy on the surface provides a link for power, life support and communications.

NASA employees and contractors have completed five previous NEEMO missions, each lasting up to two weeks.

For more details visit the NEEMO 6 crew page.