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    The Last Sea Lab Just Barely Floats On, as NASA's Wild Asteroid Simulation Sinks

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    Founding Editor

    Studying the oceans up close has arguably never been more important, what with all the effects of ocean acidification, climate change's "evil twin." It can also be difficult. And it's not cheap, especially when it involves sending humans underwater in pressurized conditions that allow them to live and work underwater for up to two weeks at a time inside the world's last remaining undersea laboratory.

    It's so expensive that last year the U.S. government cut its funding for the Aquarius Reef Base, a 22-year-old sealab that sits in about sixty feet of water about four miles from the shore of Key Largo, Florida, from $5 million to zero. Then in January, funding for the base was partially restored, thanks to an agreement with Florida International University, which has enough funds to maintain the base for 2013 but not enough money to return to doing science.

    That brings me to another expense--on top of the ones incurred by climate change: getting hit by an asteroid. Let me explain.

    For a decade, the Aquarius Reef Base, has been home to the NEEMO project, or NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations, an effort to simulate zero gravity conditions like those that would be found on an asteroid. In case an asteroid ever comes close enough to Earth to warrant getting excited about, getting excited may well include sending astronauts there to move it, just like in Armageddon.

    That's one possibility at least. Robots could be useful here (astronauts don't like to hear that kind of talk) but a missile certainly would not be an option. This could "form chunks that could also hit Earth," astronaut Mike Gernhardt said during my visit to the coastal command center last summer. To properly manipulate and understand an asteroid—for scientific or mining purposes—astronauts will want to "reach out and touch it with their hands." (see this video).

    Gernhardt has a clear interest in keeping Aquarius and NEEMO going: besides flying on the Space Shuttle four times, he's been a commander and principal investigator for two NEEMO missions. Before he became an astronaut, he was a deep sea diver who worked for years in the oil and gas industry, developing underwater robotic systems and practicing saturation dives, the kind that Aquarius makes possible, allowing divers to work for extended periods of time underwater without the annoyance of having to surface and depressurize. He's also piloted a submersible on the Pavilion Lake Expedition in western Canada, which has helped NASA train for Mars and investigated unusual life forms called microbiolites.

    Inside Aquarius. Click to enlarge

    "NEEMO plans for 2013 are still under review, so it is not confirmed either way at this time," Nicole Cloutier, a NASA spokesperson, told me. But a lack of NASA funding was only part of Aquarius's problems. This year's federal budget included no money for any projects at Aquarius. When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) consolidated programs in its ocean exploration program, it also eliminated the undersea research program that included the reef base. That made it impossible for the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, Aquarius's steward, to keep operating the lab. Despite pleas from scientists and the regret of NOAA's chief, last year it seemed that the 22-year-old Aquarius might have to shut down.

    Then in January, the base recieved a reprieve in the form of a new steward: Florida International University has offered to take over operation. The facility costs about $1.5 million a year for basic operations, but the cost jumps to about $3 million when funding research projects. This year, there's only enough money to keep the lab alive, not enough to conduct any science. 

    Ocean science is a known need, but critics have wondered if NASA's asteroid simulation is really worth the cash. (Many have also questioned the wisdom of flying to an asteroid to begin with, which was the goal President Obama set in 2011, before the U.S. sets its sights on manned missions to Mars.) NEEMO is fun and it's spectacular, but can't NASA just drop an Airstream into its Neutral Buoyancy Tank in Houston, the giant swimming pool where astronauts already train for missions?

    Oceanic explorer Sylvia Earle at Aquarius last year (Photo by DJ Roller / Liquid Pictures)

    Proponents say that wouldn't be the same, insisting that simulations like NEEMO are important because they're realistic and challenging. "Being in a potentially hazardous environment - with complicated operational issues - causes you to do things - consciously and subconsciously in a way that you would not be inclined do in a simple tank in the building next to your office," writes Keith Cowing of NASA Watch. "You can't just float out the hatch and return to the surface. I speak from experience having participated in 3 expeditions to Devon Island (two were for a month) and a month at Everest Base Camp. 'Being there' is part of the point to the planetary analogs."

    As Jim Fourqurean, the professor at Florida International University now overseeing Aquarius's future, wrote in an email, "the world outside the ship is hostile to human life and the conditions require special equipment and protection to conduct difficult tasks. This is why NASA has found Aquarius so useful, and we expect that other agencies training astronauts will also see the value in Aquarius as a training facility."

    But oceanic science, not practicing for asteroids, is still the main focus at Aquarius, and the central argument for the lab's existence. Aquarius's 400 square feet of living and research space for scientists and divers offers not only the means for the first-hand study of coral reefs and the ocean, but allows for the testing of new undersea technology, diver training, and spectacular public outreach about oceanic science, especially as climate change presents new challenges like the growing acidification that is destroying marine wildlife.

    "The base, of course, provides the unique opportunity for marine scientists and engineers to be physically present, safely, for extended time in the environment to monitor experiments, tend instruments, and make observations," says Fourquerean. "We are looking to make Aquarius and the reef around her into the premier laboratory for the study of the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on coral reefs."

    Even with money from NOAA and potentially more state funding (something more realistic than a North Carolina university funding a project in Florida), Fourqurean is looking at a serious funding challenge, one that will require some creative approaches. 

    "The real hurdles for us to clear are the development of a customer base and funding stream that will provide some stability to the program," he writes. "Aquarius is unique, so there is not a large pool of people out there with the training and expertise necessary to be part of the staff," a group that can take a year to train. "We have lost a lot of good people who had to leave Aquarius for better paying jobs in the private sector because of the yearly uncertainties in federal funding for the program." 

    Instagrams from Brian Lam's NEEMO adventure last year.

    Asteroid simulation is out for now, which will be a blow to Aquarius's public profile, not to mention to Earth's chances of understanding and surviving an asteroid. Bringing more celebrities to the base couldn't hurt the cause—Sylvia Earle and Fabien Cousteau are among the luminaries who've visited recently—and paid tourism could be a possibility too. For now, though, scientists at FIU, NASA, and elsewhere are simply hoping that Aquarius will be ready to return to business as a lab next year, because there's no other place quite like it.