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NEEMO 9 Crew Interview: Dave Williams - Commander


Dave Williams trains for NEEMO 9 Q: You’re going to be participating in the next NEEMO underwater research mission. What’s your background, and how does it qualify you to be an aquanaut?

Image to right: Canadian astronaut Dave Williams trains for his April 3-20 stay inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory off the coast of Key Largo, Fla. Credit: NASA

A: Well, you know my background is originally in emergency medicine/trauma medicine. I applied to the space program saying, “If we’re going to send humans into space for long periods of time, we need doctors who are able to take care of the medical problems that could be associated with those missions.” Now that we’re looking at NEEMO as an exploration analog, working underwater to prepare us to work on the surface of the moon, the same thing holds. So, it’s really my background in medicine, tele-health, emergency medical capabilities that makes me suited as a NEEMO member. And, I was very fortunate to be a part of the NEEMO 1 crew with Bill Todd as my buddy partner on that when we sent a crew down to evaluate Aquarius as an underwater analog for space exploration.

What’s your role going to be on this NEEMO mission?

For NEEMO 9, I’m going to be the backup commander, so if there’s a problem that takes place with Lee, our primary commander, then I would step in and participate as a crewmember underwater. In addition to that I played a key role in all the planning of the NEEMO 9 mission, working with Bill Todd, the topside team, working with the group at the Center for Minimal Access Surgery, putting together this really exciting payload for the mission.

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

You know NEEMO is a really exciting exploration analog. As we go forward with the Vision for Space Exploration, sending humans back to the moon and on to Mars, we have to ask ourselves: “Do we have an analog that will help us prepare crewmembers for those missions?” The best analog that we have, in my opinion right now, is working underwater. We work collaboratively; NOAA, NASA participating together to enable astronauts to work underwater performing seawalks that are going to be very similar to the spacewalks that we’re ultimately going to be performing on the surface of the moon or Mars.

Why do you believe that the training we’re doing in NEEMO is going to be a good tool for getting ready for the moon and Mars?

Well, you know, to get ready for missions back to the moon and on to Mars, we need a training platform or an analog environment that allows us to do many things. We need one that gives us the operational training in the types of techniques, procedures that we’re going to be using on the moon and on the surface of Mars. We need an analog environment that allows us to do the same type of research that we’ll be doing on the moon and Mars, and we also need an analog environment that combines the unique aspects of autonomous control of environment life support for the habitat itself, looking at using remotely operated vehicles, deciding how those remotely operated vehicles interact with the human crewmembers, when to use the robots, when to use the human crewmember, and the ability to go out and do simulated spacewalks, having the crewmembers manage their life support capabilities in a manner that’s more autonomous than we do right now with spacewalks on the space station. All of this will be very similar to what we’re going to be doing on the surface of the moon.

Why is telemedicine important to future exploration?

Tele-health is a critical element of the NEEMO missions. We’ve been focusing on tele-health in NEEMO 7; we’re spending a lot of time on tele-health objectives for NEEMO 9. Tele-health will be a critical element in enabling the safe human exploration of the moon and Mars. We try and lower the level of risk as much as we can, and one of the techniques we use to lower the level of risk of space exploration is to provide medical capability. We ask the question: “Well, what can we do with the crew?” And, we, we’ll have crew medical officers as part of these missions. But, to enable the crew medical officers to provide a wide range of medical procedures, tele-health enters the picture where we have physicians on the surface of the Earth able to augment the capability of crew medical officers on the surface of the moon or on the surface of Mars.

What are the similarities between saturation diving and life undersea and living on a space vehicle or, or at a moon base?

When we first used NEEMO as an analog environment we were using this to prepare crewmembers to get ready for the International Space Station, and there are similarities in the zero-g elements of doing a spacewalk and doing a dive outside of NEEMO. But, I think where NEEMO and Aquarius really shines is as an exploration analog where we have the capability of having crewmembers living and working in an isolated habitat, monitoring all the resources of that habitat in a manner similar to how they would monitor the resources of a habitat on the surface of the moon, going outside the habitat, doing seawalks, which are analogous to spacewalks, to try to determine very fundamental questions: “Can we have astronauts on the moon doing umbilical tethered operations from the lunar habitat in a manner similar to what we do with Aquarius? Or, should we use a spacesuit that has its own life support system on the back of the spacesuit? If we were to envision beyond the surface of the moon, using a rover to drive out a distance away from your lunar habitat, do you perform your spacewalk with a tether to the rover, put all the life support systems on the rover, or do you actually have all the life support systems on your back and you go away from your vehicle?” These are all questions that we can begin to answer with the Aquarius underwater habitat environment by performing similar procedures and doing what we call test objectives, detailed test objectives, to answer these very specific questions.

Dave Williams participates in NEEMO 7 training dive Image to left: Equipped with SCUBA gear, Canadian astronaut Dave Williams participates in a training dive. Credit: NASA

How does this kind of training differ from the other kinds of training that spacefarers get before they go on their missions?

Training for an underwater habitat mission is, in many ways, very, very similar to what you’re doing when you’re training either for a shuttle flight or a station flight. We’re working in an extreme hostile environment, all of the various procedures are critical for us to perform effectively when we do spacewalks. In space, we have a whole series of procedures we follow. When we do seawalks underwater, we have a whole series we, of procedures we follow; so there are many, many similarities between the two environments. Having said that, there are differences. And, of course, when you launch to go into space, you have all of the challenges associated with the launch and entry phase of flight. Once you’re actually in space, the question is: “Are you working in zero-g or are you working in a partial gravitational environment?” And, Aquarius, as an analog, is probably a better exploration analog than it is an ISS analog. It’s a smaller platform than the ISS; but in terms of size, the size of Aquarius could be very similar to a habitat that we would have on the surface of the moon. We also have the capability of weighing out our aquanauts, making them, negatively buoyant so that their buoyancy underwater mimics the gravitational environment of the surface of the moon. And, we’ve done that on NEEMO 7; we did it on NEEMO 8; and, of course, we’ll be doing this again on NEEMO 9. So, we can selectively alter their weigh-outs to mimic the gravitational environment of Mars, the moon. We can vary the signal delay between the habitat to simulate the signal delay communicating to the moon or the signal delay communicating to Mars. So, I think what’s really exciting about Aquarius is, as we get ready to transition from the ISS era to the ISS.

What kind of research is going to go on, on this NEEMO mission?

Good question. You know, NEEMO 9 is a mission that focuses primarily on tele-health objectives, looking to develop and evaluate new medical technologies that enable us to provide remote medical care. What’s exciting about this is whether the medical care is on the surface of the moon or in a smaller community in North America or in a third-world country, the same technology that we’re developing for space exploration can change the future of health care here on Earth by eliminating that geographic disparity of health care.

Could that kind of tele-health activity be valuable in disaster situations like we’ve just seen with Katrina?

That type of tele-health technology can help us in routine medical care; it’s also perfectly suited for disasters and disaster medicine, where we would deploy teams to the field and use either satellite telecommunications capability, in the case of a disaster, or in some cases we would use, be using high-speed fiber-optic telecommunication. But, in a disaster scenario, we’re more likely to use satellites; but the underlying technology is the same. And, whether it’s in a disaster in North America or whether it’s a disaster in another part of the globe, this capability that we’re developing will truly change the face of health care by enabling tertiary care consultant expert physicians to provide care in a remote, isolated environment.

How are robotic helpers going to be involved in this mission?

The NEEMO 9 mission is all about robotics. And, what’s really exciting about this mission is people will say, “What have I got for my investment in the ISS?” And, what NEEMO 9 tells us is our investment in space exploration, particularly ISS technology, is paying off already because the application of space robotics to medicine has brought us this new generation of surgical robots. And, we’re actually using surgical robots underwater in a habitat to enable remote surgeons to perform complex surgical procedures using these high-speed telecommunications linkups. If it were not for the drive in space robotics and the need to develop these sophisticated robots to build a space station, we wouldn’t have the underlying robotic technology that enables us to develop these surgical robots. If it were not for the high-speed telecommunications technology that’s evolved over the last 10 to 15 years, we could not do these missions that are changing the future of health care here on Earth. And, the last element of this is having surgeons who now developed minimally invasive keyhole procedures, and NASA’s working very closely with a number of surgeons looking at these procedures and their applications for future space exploration missions. So, it’s really that unique combination of all three elements—the robotics, the telecommunications, the cutting-edge surgical technology—that enables missions like NEEMO to go forward.

Is the new Vision for Human Spaceflight changing the nature of NEEMO?

NEEMO has been a process of evolution. When we first started looking at the Aquarius underwater habitat, it was as an ISS analog. Could we take this environment, use it to train astronauts who have never had a chance to fly in space yet to do science experiments, to follow a space station timeline, to get experience working in an extreme, harsh environment? And, the answer to that was a resounding “Yes.” If you talk to space station astronauts where their previous mission experience was a NEEMO mission, they will tell you that the biggest thing that prepared them to get ready to go to space was NEEMO, using this Aquarius underwater environment to help them get ready. Well, now we’ve evolved from an ISS analog into an exploration analog; and truly I think this is where these NEEMO missions and the partnership between NASA and NOAA shine, is providing us with one, single, integrated analog environment where we can evaluate habitability, we can evaluate rovers, we can evaluate robotics, and we can evaluate the equivalent of spacewalks all in one environment and provide answers to very complex questions about how we are going to live and work on the surface of the moon: How are we going to navigate on the surface of the moon? When we do spacewalks away from a lunar habitat, where do we need to deploy consumables? How far out can we safely do spacewalks away from a habitat? When should we be using rovers in addition to astronauts doing spacewalks? All of these questions can be answered underwater using the NEEMO Aquarius underwater platform.

Dave Williams trains for NEEMO 9 Image to right: Canadian astronaut Dave Williams (foreground) trains for his stay inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory. Credit: NASA

How do the partnerships within the NEEMO project mimic the partnerships that we’re using to build the space station, that we expect to use to go beyond it?

I’m really, really excited about NEEMO. To me, NEEMO is all about vision and partnerships—the vision of how we’re going to go forward and enable exploration, the partnerships that we need to make that happen. The administrator has said that he would welcome international collaboration in future exploration missions where the partners will be able to provide technology that’s value added for those missions. And, I think what we’ve demonstrated with NEEMO is the partnerships work. With NEEMO 9, we have partners from throughout North America, all working together, collaboratively, on a very complex science payload but also on new technologies as well. And, I think as we go forward in the exploration era, the vision of using NEEMO as an exploration-enabling research technology development platform is a very sound vision. The partnerships that are already working in NEEMO will continue to grow and enable the next stage of human exploration, having astronauts walking on the surface of the moon again. What an exciting thing to see happen! My dream is to have humans back on the moon before the 50th anniversary of Apollo. I remember, as a kid, growing up in Canada watching the first humans walking on the surface of the moon, watching the Apollo 11 crew as they landed and Neil Armstrong stepped down the side of the lunar landing module; absolutely incredible! To be able to look forward to sending humans back to the moon, to think that we’re a part of this process, that we’re using an underwater environment to get the next generation of astronauts ready for those lunar exploration missions is really, really exciting.

But, you know as we’re getting ready to send out astronauts back to the surface of the moon, we need to ask ourselves the question: What type of spacesuits will we be, be using on the surface of the moon? What type of rovers will we use on the surface of the moon? Will the astronauts wear their life support system on their back, similar to what they did in the Apollo program? Or, will we use a different way of providing them with the air that they need to breathe or the oxygen they need to breathe, depending upon the configuration? These are questions that we can get answers to, get data to help understand, by using the underwater environment. We can evaluate umbilical operations. If you’re on the surface of the moon and you’re doing a spacewalk from your habitat, can you have an umbilical and walk on the surface of the moon, dragging your umbilical behind you? If so, how long can that umbilical be before it becomes a problem? We don’t know any answers to that, because we’ve never done that before. But, we can gain a lot of experience in the underwater environment with umbilical operations; we’ve done that in NEEMO 7, NEEMO 8, NEEMO 9, and we can do specific test objectives to answering the question about umbilical operations, rover operations, and the need to deploy consumables out on the reef or farther away on the surface of the moon from your habitat to extend the capability of humans to explore on the surface of the moon. So, I look at NEEMO as a very exciting exploration analog; and I think as we go forward over the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see an expanding role for these missions, working collaboratively with NOAA and NASA together, to further underwater exploration to help us further space exploration.

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