NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations

Astronaut training in inner space

Neutral buoyancy isn't just a good skill — it's one of the great joys of diving. Where else on earth besides underwater can you thumb your nose at gravity? Has anyone in the history of scuba diving not imagined at least once he was flying like Superman or floating in space like an astronaut? If you're like me and you do that sort of thing all the time, don't worry; real astronauts do it, too.

NASA has been conducting training missions at the Aquarius Reef Base underwater habitat off Key Largo, Fla., since 2001 in a series of projects called NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO). Taking advantage of the similarities between working 60 feet below the surface for a week from a tiny research habitat and working in space for a week from a tiny spacecraft, NASA has staged as many as three projects a year from Aquarius, each one designed to provide specific tests and training for future space flights. NEEMO 16, which looked about 15 years into the future at the possible exploration of asteroids in orbit around the sun, was completed this past June.

I was invited to photograph the astronauts at work outside Aquarius, and despite the large crowd at the site, it was a thrill. The exercise had the precisely controlled frenzy of a Hollywood blockbuster being filmed underwater: elaborate sets, divers in high-tech gear, submersibles, floodlights and miles of cable and hose. Two team members, Kimiya Yui and Steven Squyres, were intently carrying out a planned excursion from "Spacecraft Aquarius" to specially constructed "asteroids" on the sandy seafloor adjacent to the reef. Two DeepWorker 2000 submersibles hovered back and forth, standing in as single-person space-exploration vehicles. Special booms attached to the subs allowed the astronauts to clip into their boots like skiers. An army of support divers filtered up and down from the surface ships, using their allotted bottom time to guide umbilical hoses, position gear, video the proceedings and help keep everyone safe.

Being careful not to interrupt, I photographed the astronauts as they used the subs to maneuver themselves to a spot on the "asteroid" and attempted to collect samples. Even clipped securely to the sub, the difficulty of the task was apparent. Both Yui and Squyres remained completely focused on the job at hand, never becoming distracted by me or by the dozens of support personnel.

I was impressed by the realism of the whole scene. Later, at NASA's Mobile Mission Control Center in Key Largo, I asked Mike Gernhardt, principal investigator for NEEMO 16 and a participant in NEEMO 1 and NEEMO 8, if the underwater experience really translated to space. He smiled and assured me it did — with "high fidelity." A veteran astronaut with four spacewalks under his belt, Gernhardt speaks from experience. He explained that some of that fidelity was due to the similarity of the environments, but a big part of it resulted from the detail NASA puts into the planning and execution of the mission — getting the kinematics right, as NASA terms it. For instance, the astronauts are not simply fitted with weights for neutral buoyancy. Their weight is carefully calculated to simulate the gravity of the practice area. For NEEMO 16, they were nearly weightless as they would be in the microgravity of an asteroid. In other years the target was moon gravity, and the astronauts left Aquarius negatively buoyant at about a quarter of their earth weight, as they would be on the moon. That level of detail extended to every facet of the project: A 50-second delay was incorporated to make communication realistic. Every excursion outside Aquarius was designed to accurately mimic spacewalks in terms of time, distance and task.

Gernhardt said there are only two significant differences between inner and outer space that couldn't be adjusted for on NEEMO projects. The first is the viscosity of water. "Space walking underwater is like walking across a muddy field wearing a pair of heavy boots," he said. "In actual space, it's like you're on ice skates." The second difference is all the sea life. Flashing another smile, he said, "Space is antiseptic compared to the ocean. Down here, you're surrounded by life; up there … well, it's space, but the visibility is incredible."

Speaking from Aquarius on the last day of NEEMO 16, mission commander Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger told me there was no other place they could do so much to sort out procedures and techniques for a future asteroid exploration. "We made multiple ‘space walks' each day," she said, "testing how to move, how to anchor ourselves and how well our tools work, all under extremely realistic conditions. I can't imagine a more productive environment."

The NEEMO projects may take place underwater, but what's happening at Aquarius is space pioneering. Down there is where NASA sorts out the ideas, tests the hardware, works out the procedures and decides how many people are needed for the next big push in space exploration — all for a price tag that's economical rather than astronomical.

Yet, NEEMO 16 may be the last NEEMO project because, after 20 years of operation, Aquarius is on the federal government's budget chopping block. The habitat is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which pays the University of North Carolina to run the habitat as part of the National Undersea Research Center (NURC). Even without factoring in Aquarius' research and naval missions, surely the undersea habitat is an asset worth keeping. The exploration of space, inner and outer, should at least be high enough on our list of national priorities to avoid talk of elimination.

I hope Aquarius is around to host NEEMO 17 and that NASA has the funds to put the next class of astronauts underwater to prepare for space. The next time I'm hanging on the line for a 15-foot safety stop, instead of counting the minutes, I'm going to imagine myself spacewalking outside the shuttle like Gernhardt and all the other Aquarius-trained astronauts, balanced on the edge of the universe as the blue arc of planet Earth rises into view.
NEEMO 16 participants
  • Dottie Metcalf-Lindenberger, NASA (NEEMO mission commander)
  • Kimiya Yui, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
  • Tim Peake, European Space Agency
  • Steven Squyres, Ph.D., professor of astronomy, Cornell University
Preserve the future
The Aquarius Foundation supports the continued operation of the Aquarius Reef Base, the world's only operational undersea research station. As a part of its mission to support diving research, DAN has agreed to act as a fiscal sponsor for the Aquarius Foundation. All the funds donated to DAN through will be earmarked for use by the Aquarius Foundation.

© Alert Diver — Fall 2012
Learn More
Jonathan Bird's Blue World: Aquarius Reef Base
Astronauts Train for Asteroid Mission Underwater
NASA Extreme Environment Missions Operations (NEEMO) 16
Meet the Crew