When you think of a NASA mission, what images pop into your head? A space shuttle blasting into the sky? The International Space Station (ISS) floating in the blackness of space? How about an astronaut, surrounded by colorful reef fish, strolling on the ocean floor? The last one might surprise you, but it's really happening.
NASA's latest mission is a visit under the sea. The soggy expedition is part of the ongoing NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project, or NEEMO for short. NEEMO expeditions to the ocean bottom simulate, or recreate, some conditions that astronauts would experience in space. This is NASA's 14th NEEMO expedition.
The Life Aquatic
The latest mission launched on May 10 and will last for 14 days. During this time, a team of four astronauts and scientists as well as two lab technicians will live and work aboard the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory. The lab is located 62 feet below the ocean's surface, three miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.
Aquarius gives the underwater crew, or aquanauts, a chance to practice working in low-gravity environments, such as those found on the moon and other planets. They are also experiencing what it's like to live in a small, isolated space for long periods of time and how to work together as a team. This helps to prepare astronauts for life on the space shuttle or on the ISS during regular missions.
A NASA team based on shore is acting as a mini Mission Control center for the underwater crew. The topside team's job is to make sure everything runs smoothly. In addition, they are studying the area's marine life. "Even though we are working on simulating a space mission, we are also evaluating the underwater environment and looking at the health of the coral reef," says engineer Heather Paul, who is part of the shore-based crew.
Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield is leading the mission, along with NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn and scientists Andrew Abercromby and Steve Chappell. On Monday, after a final glance at the blue sky, the NEEMO 14 team put on their diving gear, dove into the sea and swam towards Aquarius.
"[We are] constantly distracted and amazed by the new sights and sounds," the crew wrote in their online journal. "The views out the windows show a limitless blue, with passing fish always in your [sight]."
Wearing special dive suits, the aquanauts will perform a total of 24 "spacewalks" on the sea floor in the next two weeks. They will handle equipment and operate vehicles on the ocean bottom, just as they might on another planet.
The suits can be adjusted so that the team can simulate different levels of gravity as if they were in space. Observing how the crewmembers move in the gear will help NASA scientists design spacesuits for future shuttle missions. "With every single [NEEMO] mission, we learn how to do things a little bit better," engineer Paul told TFK.
To Infinity, and Beyond?
Of course, venturing into outer space is still on NASA's schedule. On Friday, the space shuttle Atlantis will blast off on its final 12-day mission to the International Space Station. After Atlantis, there will be only two more shuttle launches before NASA retires the fleet at the end of September. Currently, there are no plans to replace the shuttle program. That means for the next few years, NASA astronauts will be hitching rides into space with foreign space agencies.
So, what does the future hold for the U.S. and space exploration? During a visit in April to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, President Barack Obama outlined his plan for NASA to focus on sending astronauts to Mars and farther out in the solar system. The President also announced that he would increase NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years to fund advanced space technologies.
Heather Paul says that any kind of space exploration, whether it's to the moon or to Mars, is exciting. "Just tell us the destination, and we'll make a suit and rocket ship to get us there," she told TFK.