When people think of NASA, what automatically comes to mind are images of planets, stars, space shuttles and outer space. But what of inner space? How do we account for the fact that right here at home, there are depths and expanses wich remain largely unexplored? For some time, this has been a subject of lively speculation, where writers and scientists have ventured that exploration in this century will consist of underwater as well as interplanetary missions.
And it just so happens that this is also the subject of NASA’s NEEMO project – which stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. Known as an “analogue mission”, it consists of placing people in conditions similar to that of space. Oftentimes, these simulations involve centrifuges and pressure chambers in order to simulate the types of g-forces and pressure conditions of space flight. By contrast, in an analogue mission, crews will spend days working in an extreme environment and communicating with Mission Control in a way that is very similar to working on flying mission.
In any case, NEEMO 16 began yesterday when the trainees submerged to reach the Aquarius Reef Base off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. Owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the Aquarius Base is an 85-ton habitat that supports a crew of up to six “Aquanauts”. The habitat is pressurized to over twice normal atmospheric pressure both to keep the Aquanauts equalized to the water pressure at that depth and to allow for a moon pool where the Aquanauts can enter and leave the habitat without airlocks or hatches.
Communications are maintained with the surface via the LSB, or Life Support Buoy, which also provides the habitat with power generation, air compressors, and other support equipment. And when its all over, the Aquanauts must undergo an almost 16-hour decompression process to bring them safely back to normal atmospheric conditions, since they spend all their time saturated at the pressure of 2.5 atmospheres while underwater.
Is anybody else reminded of the movies The Abyss and Leviathan? I know I am. Damn those films were claustrophobic, another thing inner space and outer space have in common. You know the tagline from Alien: “In space, no one can hear you scream?” Well the same is true underwater. And I imagine decompression and drowning are equally horrible ways to die!
In the meantime, check out this video taken of the underwater habitat the NEEMO 16 team.