Since 2001, I've been blessed and privileged to work on the NASA NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment MIssion Operations) as a trainer, diver, investigator, support person and yes, photographer. These missions operate from the Aquarius habitat off of Key Largo, Florida. If you're not familiar with it, Aquarius has been the underwater equivalent of the International Space Station for more than 20 years. It sits in 60 feet of water in the John Pennekamp underwater preserve, and allows scientists to live underwater for periods ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks. It's not a submarine -- divers live in it at the same pressure as the surrounding ocean.
Operated by NURC (National Underwater Research Center) and owned by NOAA, Aquarius is a national treasure. In its career, it has hosted hundreds of unique undersea research projects -- unique in that there is no other underwater habitat like it in operation anywhere, by anyone. Beginning in 2001, NASA started running NEEMO missions to study spaceflight dynamics. A crew of four NASA divers --usually three astronauts and a scientist -- along with two NURC diver/operators -- explored different aspects of humans in space. What made Aquarius a one-of-a-kind test bed is that it is an analog environment, not a simulation. The missions were real missions, and NEEMO teams actually depended upon their life support systems to stay alive. The 16 NEEMO missions researched many questions that need answers as we move deeper into space, ranging from handling a medical emergency on Mars to the best way to explore an asteroid. The missions conducted interactive, web-based outreaches into schoolrooms and attracted high profile divers and explorers from around the world. Peripheral tasks broke new ground -- I was personally involved in creating a mosaic map of the Carpenter Basin in which Aquarius sits. The map took literally thousands of overlapping images and then joined them together to create a map with so much detail, you can zoom in on individual fish
Despite incredible knowledge gained (at a fraction of the cost to do so in space) through the NEEMO projects, as well as hundreds of marine research studies, Aquarius and its NEEMO missions are coming to an end. Unless some miracle occurs, Aquarius -- which can be operated for years for the cost of a single space shuttle flight -- will shut down at the end of 2012 due to government budget cuts. For all the things we see our tax dollars wasted on, it seems tragic that this useful, proven facility will be gone. As I write this, a team is slowly -- reluctantly -- dismantling the support operation facilities.
The image you see here is one I captured during what is likely the final Aquarius based NEEMO mission. It shows a NASA scientist working with mockups for asteroid-based exploration, and he's wearing a Kirby Morgan diving helmet, which is a good analog to a space suit; the white coveralls echo the white worn by astronauts. The Kennedy quote was from the speech that launched us to the moon; I used a very classic type font and gave the image painted look to honor the classic quote and suggest a moment worth special remembrance. When I created this last summer, none of us really thought we were conducting the last mission. Ironically, it was the most advanced, progressive and ambitious mission yet -- a lot done and a a lot learned. (Check out the clips on YouTube, including this one.
Actually, NEEMO will likely survive -- the project explores other extreme environments on Earth as a way of learning more about what we need to know to explore space. But, its inception and heart lie with the Aquarius underwater habitat.
If we as a country can't afford Aquarius, maybe a soft drink company like Red Bull can.
UPDATE: Aquarius and NEEMO survived! At the last minute Florida International University (FIU) took over Aquarius. Replacing NURC, FIU upgraded the operation and moved the shore base, so today it's doing well -- but continues to need public support. NEEMO continues to go there, with 20 missions as of August 2015. NEEMO XXI is scheduled for July 2016. Be sure to friend NEEMO in Facebook and follow @NASA_NEEMO.