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NEEMO 9 Crew Interview: Nicole Stott - Mission Specialist


Nicole Stott during dive training Q: You’re going to be participating in a NEEMO mission next month. What’s your background, and how does it qualify you to be what’s known as an aquanaut?

A: Well, I’m in the Astronaut Office now, and my background prior to the Astronaut Office was primarily operations—shuttle operations, station operations, as well as working on the shuttle training aircraft as a flight engineer. So very hands-on. I think that fits very well with a NEEMO kind of mission as it does with a spaceflight. So from a recreational standpoint, I’m a scuba diver and those two things kind of fit together. The fact that I’m looking forward to one day being an expedition crewmember on space station, I think this, this all kind of really blends well in terms of training and prep for that kind of thing.

Image to right: Astronaut Nicole Stott takes a moment to pose for a picture during dive training for her April 3-20 stay inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. Credit: NASA

How and why were you selected for the NEEMO project, and did you have to go through any special dive certification process or psychological screening or anything like that?

There was no formal psychological screening that I know of. And, as far as dive certification goes, I had previously been certified to dive, like after high school, I got my dive cert. But, in terms of being selected, I think the NEEMO mission fits very well into the expeditionary training that I’ve done so far, and leading hopefully to an expeditionary flight on space station. Some of that training that I’ve done up to this point has been survival training, cold weather, as well as an outdoor leadership school in the canyon lands of Utah that we participate in.

What is your role going to be in this NEEMO mission?

Well, I’m a crewmember. I’m a member of the crew, and, as such, I’ll be participating in all of the day-to-day activities that include our telemedicine experiments that we’re going to be performing as well as EVAs or what we would equate to as EVAs with the dives that we’ll be doing. All of this in support of developing practices and, hopefully, lessons learned for future exploration of space.

What is NEEMO, and what does it mean to you?

NEEMO, the acronym itself, stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. And really they are missions that take us into an extreme environment that parallels an environment like space and allows us to get experience in that environment so that we can develop the skills and, perhaps, protocols or practices for future exploration of space.

Are there real dangers and real concerns? Is this a real mission as opposed to some of the other training you’ve gotten?

I think this is very much a real mission. I mean, we’re going into, as the acronym says, an extreme environment where, when we’re not inside of that habitat—and, in fact, that habitat is providing us with the production we need as well; as human beings. We can’t just live under the water for any amount of time without some external support—so, when we’re in the habitat with the life support buoy from the surface providing us with the resources that we need or when we’re outside in the water—and the water column in our scuba gear or our super-light 17 scuba helmets—we’re being provided with the resources that we need to survive down there. That again parallels what we would see in space in terms of an extreme environment.

Do you think NEEMO is a valuable training tool for future moon and Mars missions?

Definitely. I think it’s definitely valuable. We’re looking forward to this mission being a kind of follow-on to NEEMO 7; we’re really focusing on exploration as part of our mission. In fact, as a crew, we’ve talked amongst ourselves as well as with our topside team, about communicating in a way that it would seem we are actually on the surface of the moon, treating it like a lunar analog. So all of the tasks that we’re doing, we’re performing those in a way that rolls up into, directly into the NASA objectives for exploration.

Why is telemedicine important to those kinds of future exploration missions?

I think it’s an extension of why it’s important here on Earth. Some of the telemedicine techniques that we’re going to be looking at that they’ve been developing in places like Canada and using already, for providing medical care to remote areas of our own planet here we’ll need for traveling to the moon and Mars. Just like it is important for us here on Earth and the applications that they’re using telemedicine for and developing for remote areas here on our own planet, we’re also going to need that to be able to live and work successfully in space. We don’t have hospitals, facilities and a cadre of physicians there to support any kind of injury or, perhaps, illness that might come up. These kinds of things are going to be required for us to successfully support those missions.

Nicole Stott beside habitat window Image to left: Astronaut/aquanaut Nicole P. Stott takes a moment to pose for a picture beside a habitat window during her stay inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory. Credit: NASA

What are the similarities between saturation diving and life undersea, and going into space and maybe living on another planetary body?

I think there’s a number of similarities; in fact they, they parallel each other very well. The extreme environment is one. Both space and living undersea expose us to an environment that we cannot survive in without external support—the life support buoy from the surface providing us air, electricity and environmental controls for the habitat that we’ll be living in undersea, in space or on another planet. We would need those same kinds of things provided for us. We can’t just go out, shirtsleeve and walk outside of the habitat underwater as well as we can’t just do that when we’re in space. So, we have those exterior things that are needed for us, these extra things that you wouldn’t have to have if you were just walking out of your house here in Houston.

Do you think your experience that you’ve had to date will help you better understand the challenges of living and working in space? Do you think the experience you’re going to get in NEEMO will help you understand the challenges of living and working in space or other planets for long periods?

I think the NEEMO experience is going to be an excellent analog. I think it’s going to be an excellent analog to what it will be like to live and work in space. Based on previous expeditionary training I’ve done and kind of the evolution towards this NEEMO mission, as well as just speaking to former astronauts who have actually lived on the space station and then afterwards come and done a NEEMO mission and hearing them speak just very glowingly of how the NEEMO experience was, was as close as you could possibly get down here to what the space experience is.

How does this kind of training differ from the other kinds of training you’ve received as an astronaut?

I think it’s different in that it really and truly is putting you into an extreme environment. We do other expeditionary training, where we go out for five to ten days as a crew on our own, living in an environment that’s unusual and different to us, but we can still breathe the air; we can still cook our food the way we would normally would; we can still get water the way we normally would. Whereas NEEMO takes that to the next step; it takes us to where we’re really and truly relying on external sources to provide those things for us. And then, and most importantly, to provide the protection that we need to live in that environment.

Are you going to be involved in any of the research going on in NEEMO, and do you expect that to be similar to the kind of research you would do on a space station or on the moon or on Mars?

Yeah, I think it’s going to be very similar to what the kinds of things we’ll do on station and for future lunar and planetary exploration-type activities. All of us, as crewmembers, will be involved with all of the experiments that are going on down there. And, that’s both the telemedicine aspects of things, with the telerobotic surgery and tele-mentoring, which I think we’re all very excited about, as well as the more focused exploration-based research, like going out on the EVAs and using new tools that we have available to us to determine if they’re applicable or not to lunar surface exploration or developing a base on the moon.

You’re going to be conducting some excursions outside Aquarius. Do you think those are going to be similar to taking a spacewalk or a moonwalk?

Yeah, I think it’s going to be really similar. We got to go down and visit the habitat and in scuba gear, of course, and come in and out, and that was a very quick excursion there. But, when we do our EVAs from the habitat, we’re going to be treating them just like we would an EVA from a space station or a habitat on the moon or Mars. We’ll be doing our equipment checkout, we’ll be going through all of those kind of safety steps that you would to ensure you’re going to be safe while you’re out there, as well as having our topside team or our Mission Control Center working with us to ensure that those missions are successful and our internal crewmember, that’s monitoring what we’re doing. We’re going to try to make it parallel as close as possible, what you would do on a spaceflight.

How are you going to be using robotic helpers in your work?

We are going to have robotic helpers. Almost every aspect of this mission has robotics involved in some way. The telemedicine side of it, we’re going to be hands-on using robots to assist us with arthroscopic surgery on these models of knees that we’ll have. We’ll be doing that with mentoring from a physician and a surgeon in Canada that’s remotely located. Then, to extend that even more, we’ll have the robotics set up, the surgical equipment set up so that that same surgeon can perform the surgery from Canada on the model that we have set up in the habitat. That’s going to be extremely exciting, I think; just to watch that is going to be really interesting to see. And then, just yesterday we were working with a team from the University of Nebraska that has these in vivo robots, these smaller robots that actually through like a laparoscopic incision are inserted into your abdominal cavity, and they are remotely controlled to move around and give you better visuals of the area that the surgeon is working on. They’re hoping to extend that to actually be able to use those little mini-robots to do the surgery itself, have the instruments on them to do that kind of surgery. And then, outside the habitat, we’ll have some rovers available to us that we’re going to use to try and explore, do surface exploration and see if that would be something that we would need on like a lunar base or for Mars, or even perhaps extend the kind of robotics we have available to us on space station right now. So, we’re really excited about the robotics side of things.

Nicole Stott during NEEMO training diveImage to right: Astronaut Nicole Stott trains for her stay inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory. Credit: NASA

What are you most looking forward to about the mission?

Well, I think there’s a number of things. I think there’s two, two big things. One is just that the way this mission is being set up, it really and truly is in line with directly supporting NASA’s exploration goals. I think we have a real special opportunity to take advantage of and provide lessons learned that hopefully will have a positive impact and will provide value to the people that are developing the plans for going to the moon and on to Mars. And then, on the other side of things, I think that kind of overarches all of it is going to be just living in like this beautiful undersea environment and sharing it with some really fantastic crewmembers and all of us working together to make it a success. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and a lot of value at the same time. So, I’m really looking forward to it.

What are you least looking forward to?

Well, I think the fact that I can’t have my family right there experiencing it. Because all of these things that we get to do as part of the Astronaut Office, these expeditionary training things, I just know my husband would love to be there doing it as well. And so, they are very supportive of me going off and doing this. But, at the same time, I would love to be able to bring them in right there, kind of, if nothing else, fly on the wall being able to experience it as well. So I’m going to work really hard to try to share it with them as best I can through journals and photos and special little messages to my son and that kind of thing. But, to make them as much a part of it as possible when we can’t actually be there together, sharing it.

Are you looking forward to having some interactive events with students on the mission?

Very much. I think a big part of this mission [is] educational outreach. We are going to spend a good amount of time talking to students across the country and hopefully internationally about the mission that we have going on and how that hopefully will inspire them to become interested in science and math and engineering and at least, give them some kind of insight into what is available to them hopefully in the future, allowing them to be the ones that will actually be making those footsteps on the surface of Mars, since I think that I and the other crewmembers that are down there with me will be too old at that point to be able to experience it ourselves. But, it’s going to be exciting. We’re really, really excited about being able to share the mission with as many people as possible. And, certainly with young kids who typically show the most enthusiasm about what we get to do.

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