In July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it was killing its funding for the Aquarius Reef Base, which, located off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, is the only sea lab of its kind in the world. Even during a science funding drought across the board, it was a difficult blow for the decades-long project of sending scientists and divers 60 feet below sea level to live on the ocean floor.
A month beforehand, an international team of three astronauts and an astronomy professor sped four miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, and dived 60 feet down to Aquarius to undertake what may be the last undersea mission to an asteroid in awhile.
See our video about the NEEMO mission on the newest episode of Spaced Out.
Their two week stay at Aquarius, part of the 16th mission of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO, was meant to simulate the gravity and isolation of a trip to Mars or an asteroid. That meant asteroid walks, tooling around on jet packs and “lunar rovers,” and delayed communication tests meant to prepare for the frustrating process of communicating with mission control across the giant distances of space. (See our little video about the mission here.)
By saturation diving — living in a trailer-sized sealab at 2.5 atmospheres of pressure – they didn’t have to worry about depressurizing, and get about ten times more work done than if they were surfacing every day. And because of Aquarius’s heavy-duty telecommunications platform, they didn’t have to worry about not being on the Internet either. That meant they could communicate with their families, make friends on Facebook jealous, and upload little little science experiment videos to YouTube. And maybe watching cartoons too.
NEEMO 16 crew, clockwise from top left: ESA astronaut Tim Peake, Cornell Professor Steven Squyres, JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui, Aquarius Reef Base habitat technician Justin Brown, Aquarius Reef Base lead habitat technician James Talacek, and NASA astronaut and NEEMO Commander Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger
The NASA mission is just the tip of Aquarius’s scientific iceberg. Among the research accomplishments at the sealab, NOAA lists experiments that have tested the role of sponges in filtering water around reefs, the discovery of huge waves of cool water from deeper areas offshore that wash over reefs, and the development and testing of instruments that enable that kind of work.
The $3 million-per-year lab is meant to make the many researchers who visit Aquarius feel at home, in spite of the alien environment: it boasts six bunk beds, instant hot water, a shower, a microwave, a trash compactor, a refrigerator and even air conditioning.
But, as I discovered during a chat with the aquanauts over video link, one amenity is noticeably missing. And unless some emergency funding comes through soon for Aquarius, there won’t be any amenities at all.