Astronaut or Aquanaut?
KEY LARGO, Fla. - Astronaut John Herrington, the first enrolled American
Indian in space, is all wet - literally.
Herrington was part of a six member underwater team as part of the NASA
Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project.
NEEMO uses an existing underwater research facility operated by the
University of North Carolina Wilmington off Key Largo, Fla. It's funded by
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) undersea
research program. The Aquarius habitat is roughly the size of a space
Herrington was chosen as commander for the expedition because of his
experience. His crew included rookie Astronauts Doug Wheelock, Nick Patrick
and Biomedical Engineer Tara Ruttley. Two University of North Carolina
Engineers, Craig Cooper and Joe March maintain the systems in Aquarius. The
underwater mission ran July 12 - 21. Five groups of NASA astronauts and
engineers have participated in previous NEEMO expeditions.
Aquarius rests about 62 feet beneath the surface. The pressure at
Aquarius's depth is about two-and-a-half times of normal sea level
pressure. Average SCUBA divers can reach that depth and the surrounding
area is a popular dive destination.
NASA claims Aquarius is a good equivalent to working in space. What anybody
else would call a dive, NASA referred to as Extravehicular Activity or EVA.
Each day included an underwater 'spacewalk' where the team put on SCUBA
gear and exited the habitat. Some of the underwater activities included
studying the coral reefs in the area and building underwater structures.
NASA feels that assembling components underwater is similar to space
station assembly tasks. Herrington helped attach a large truss to the
International Space Station during three spacewalks on his spaceflight in
2002 so he provided feedback as to how realistic the underwater simulations
are in helping plan for future space station assembly tasks.
In an interview with Indian Country Today Herrington noted that their task
was "always harder than it seems. Just like in spaceflight it doesn't
always work out like you think it's going to. We have some changes we're
going to make to how we handle our equipment and the little wire ties. It
was a handful."
Wheelock said Herrington was able to share his spaceflight experience. He
said "He was real helpful today. John brought his EVA experience in to the
water. Double-checking everything's tethered [so] we have a means of
retrieving things." He noted that about half way into their EVA they
noticed that whoever was doing the more physical tasks was using more air.
Wheelock explained "We [started] crossloading tasks to try to even things
out a bit. John used that as a teaching point for me - just a way to spread
out the wealth and working more as a team."
Herrington said he enjoys SCUBA diving for fun, but the training for the
Aquarius expedition was far more than what he had previously done.
Herrington said "You have to go through the training that the National
Undersea Research folks give us. It makes us feel very safe in the water
with all of the training we've gone through."
Herrington noted that they had far less training for the dives than for his
spacewalks "So there's a learning curve as you're out on the line doing the
tagging. We had to be spontaneous."
The teams did an average of two dives each day, plus engineering tasks
inside the undersea habitat.
Inside the habitat NASA is studying exercise equipment, and anti-microbial
and wireless tracking technologies which may be useful on long duration
missions aboard the space station and future proposed flights to the Moon
The Aquarius habitat has several land facilities. A cable to a buoy on the
surface provides power, communications, fresh air, water and other
services. There's a normal phone line, high speed Internet access, and
compressed video phone available. A control center in Key Largo controls
the Aquarius habitat.
"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. "With NEEMO we have an
analog of such high fidelity that we can field-test equipment and
procedures before we try them in space." he added.
From one perspective NEEMO is just a nine-day dive vacation. It's certainly
no where close to the four to six months long-duration crews spend aboard
the International Space Station. When an astronaut participates on a NEEMO
expedition he just takes a commercial flight to Miami and rents a car to
drive a couple of hours to Key Largo. He knows that he's going to be home
within two weeks. The training is limited to just a couple of weeks of
familiarization, scuba training and briefings before the initial dive.
In contrast, a space station crew spends years in training and once they
launch they know it's going to be months before they're going to see their
families - or anybody else. The Aquarius can host temporary visitors who
dive down for a tour or for some specialized tasks. If there's a minor
emergency, for example a medical problem or a crisis at home, a single
crewmember from Aquarius can return to the surface separately after
Only a major emergency could justify evacuating a crewmember from the space
station - and in that case everybody has to leave. If the space station
crew has time they can set up the space station for operation without a
crew, but if they have to abandon the space station quickly because of an
emergency then they may not have time.