Inside NASA's Last Undersea Mission to Save Earth from an Asteroid
The threat is so potentially catastrophic that even a small chance of impact – and the utterly apocalyptic waves that could subsequently erase entire coastlines – makes an asteroid one of those things that someone should probably be thinking about.
The possibility that Earth will be hit by an asteroid in our lifetime isn’t huge. But here’s the thing: the threat is so potentially catastrophic that even a small chance of impact – and the utterly apocalyptic waves that could subsequently erase entire coastlines – makes an asteroid one of those things that someone should probably be thinking about.
For years, that’s precisely what a little-known NASA project has been doing, 20 meters beneath the ocean surface, some four kilometers off the coast of the Florida Keys. Each summer, groups of aquanauts descend to Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s last true sea lab, run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to live underwater for two weeks at a time, as part of a project called NEEMO, or NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations.
And because of fresh budget cuts, the most recent installment of the mission, which we visited in June, may well be the last.
Aquarius Reef Base
The missions are part of a space analog tradition that also sends prospective astronauts into the desert and ice caves, tooling around in futuristic space vehicles, and swimming in a giant swimming pool at NASA headquarters in Houston, all for the purpose of training for life out of Earth’s atmosphere. Since 2009, when Barack Obama came to NASA to describe America’s new deep-space mission – not back to the moon but to an asteroid, in anticipation of a trip to Mars – the focus of NEEMO has shifted from the Moon and Mars to one of the most challenging space missions ever imagined. And it’s precisely the kind of mission that science boosters like Neil deGrasse Tyson consider to be valuable: re-upping the inspirational power of space exploration while buying the Earth a little “asteroid insurance.”
Of course not everyone’s a fan of sending humans to a flying rock as our first real trip into deep space. Obama’s astroid announcement led some to speculate he was simply trying to buy time with a fantastical idea while the country figured out how to pay for real human spaceflight again. Perhaps he wanted to distance himself from his predecessor’s exceedingly ambitious space plans. And to some astronauts, like Mike Gernhardt, the idea was simply a let-down: the Moon seemed like a much better way-station to Mars, and it was already in the sights of the Chinese space program, which intends to send astronauts there by 2020.
Photo courtesy NASA
But Gernhardt, a veteran diver who’s now the principal investigator of the NEEMO project, points out that flying to an asteroid will give us new tools for understanding the solar system and provide us with valuable rare minerals that can be used as fuel for deep space missions. (Already, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot Jr., Charles Simonyi and James Cameron have teamed up to start a company dedicated to asteroid mining.)
And of course, sending humans on a six-month trip to one of the near earth objects that potentially threaten us, Armageddon style, might be the best chance we’ll have of nudging it out of the path of Earth. (Blowing it up, Gernhardt points out, isn’t the best solution, as it “could form chunks that could hit the Earth.”)
There are a few catches here, of course, beginning with the future of NEEMO itself. When we visited the sea lab in early July, the staff – a hardened and friendly crew of former Navy and Marine divers – were getting ready for a visit from diving queen Sylvia Earle, in the hopes of drumming up more political support amidst a national science funding crisis. But in late July, the bad news surfaced: NOAA announced budget cuts that are likely to imperil it for good. “There were signals that the budget was tight but we didn’t think it would be zeroed out,” Thomas Potts, director of Aquarius, told ABC News in July, when the $5 million budget was killed. The lab, which is used extensively during the year for a wide spectrum of non-space-related oceanic research, is no longer mission-ready. The NEEMO 16 mission may well be the last in awhile. “Like a ghost town @ReefBase. Remaining crew inventorying gear in preparation for shut down #needamiracle to #SaveARB,” reads the Aquarius Twitter stream today.
The first sea lab was constructed by the Navy in the 1960s, as a way to allow sailors, scientists and other aquanauts to saturation dive, working for extended periods of time underwater without the annoyance of having to surface and depressurize. The 22-year-old Aquarius was first deployed in the U.S. Virgin Islands but was moved to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1993, after Hurricane Hugo devastated St. Croix in 1989.
Photo by Brian Lam / Gizmodo
“NOAA’s core mission is to conduct and support scientific research and exploration of the oceans,” NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco said. “The Aquarius program has been a vital part of this research and we fully recognize its importance. Unfortunately, our budget environment is very, very challenging and we are unable to do all that we would like.” Now a group called the Aquarius Foundation started a White House petition and is trying to raise funds to maintain the lab, a costly endeavor that requires maintenance even when the lab is not in use. Somewhere in the background: the persistent criticism that NASA should be relying less on humans and more on robots for these sorts of missions.
But for the purposes of understanding deep space, the “inner space” of Aquarius, with its microgravity and isolated conditions, is a perfect testing ground for missions to asteroids and eventually to Mars, says Gernhardt. During the latest NEEMO dive, the crew of six was testing how communication delays of up to 50 seconds effect mission operations, and using jet packs, vehicles and ropes to investigate how to best move across the surface of an asteroid, on which, due to low gravity, a spaceship would be unable to actually “land.”
There’s another good thing about preparing to save the world from an astroid hit in the strange sanctity of the ocean with jet packs on. And it has less to do with the mechanics and more to do with the romance of science and space travel. As Gernhardt told us, simply, “it’s a lot of fun.”