Two NEEMO Missions Prepare Astronauts For Asteroid Landing

When we think of NASA, the usual thought process takes us out of this world into the vast reaches of space, where a great void would be our demise if our life-sustaining equipment were to fail. NASA is all about extreme environments, and they want to make sure that the equipment they take off this world is in top shape. But they don’t always want to leave the planet to put such equipment to the test.

In the not so distant future, NASA wants to land people on an asteroid like the one that recently came so close to Earth, but they’re not about to send them there without some sort of training first. NEEMO, or NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, is set up to study aquanauts under extreme underwater conditions. These astronauts turned aquanauts are housed at a facility about 62 feet deep under the waters of the Florida Keys, where a marine biology base has been studying the life forms for well over a decade. Teams of aquanauts generally go down for a couple of weeks to perform EVA experiments and become acclimated to the environment, which apparently is quite similar to outer space.

The station is the only deep-sea research facility on Earth, and has six bunks for the aquanauts to use. It also has running water, including heated water for showers, a working toilet, and a microwave and fridge. It even has computers with a wireless link to the surface, making the place almost like a vacation home. And, since they are residing in the coral reef with all its gorgeous scenery as well, the photo ops down there are likely to be excellent as well.

The four NEEMO 18 aquanauts of the current mission descended down into the ocean about 3.5 miles and entered the Aquarius research station on Monday, joining Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, who will command the mission, and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

One of the key reasons for their deep dive is the hostile environment, of course, but without anything to do down there not much would be accomplished along those lines. That being said, they’ve lined up three core areas of focus, which are figuring out an optimum crew size, dealing with delays in communications, and discovering ways to attach their vehicles to asteroids during the entire course of a mission on such a volatile surface.

“It is critical that we perform science applicable to NASA’s exploration goals in a high-fidelity space operational context,” explained Bill Todd, the NEEMO project manager. “The extreme environment of life undersea is as close to being in space as possible.”

Some of their investigation will center on health issues and performance abilities, while the NEEMO 19 team will be more focused on “telementoring”–or voice instructions given to an astronaut from an offsite expert. These instructions are likely to be given during simulated spacewalks or other EVA activities. They’ll investigate the use of tools, performing tasks in varying levels of gravity, and learning coping techniques that would be necessary under the conditions of space.

News clip from the NEEMO 16 mission provides a closer look at the interior of the Aquarius: