While the shuttle Atlantis crew wrapped up its space station construction flight, a fellow group of astronauts was busy working beneath the sea to prepare for future missions.
As part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO, astronauts live in a government-owned underwater habitat named Aquarius. The 20-year-old abode is located about five miles off the coast of Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
During their stay, the astronauts, all of whom are training for possible assignment to long-duration space station missions, donned diving gear to test spacewalking techniques NASA is developing for planned lunar expeditions. After the space station is finished and the shuttle fleet retired, NASA plans to begin flying a new capsule, called Orion, which will ferry crews to the moon.
NEEMO also is intended to test spacesuit components, communication techniques, navigation strategies, methods to retrieve geologic samples, lunar habitat construction techniques and remotely controlled robots.
“These results will allow our designers and engineers to improve designs of habitats, robots and spacesuits,” said NEEMO mission director Marc Reagan. “We will explore new challenges and learn to overcome the inherent difficulties of living and working on the moon.”
Magnus’ team is the 11th from NASA to train in Aquarius, which typically is occupied by marine biologists and other scientists studying coral reefs, oceanic changes and other undersea phenomena.
The habitat, which rests 62 feet below sea level, is supported by a buoy on the surface that provides power, life support and communications. Engineers oversee Aquarius operations around the clock via a shore-based mission control center. The habitat itself has about 400 square feet of living space and laboratory areas and is located next to deep coral reefs.
“It is a compact place and feels a bit bigger than the volume of the shuttle, but not by much,” said Magnus, who flew aboard the shuttle during Atlantis’ previous mission in October 2002.
Several former NEEMO crewmembers have gone on to space station assignments, including Michael Lopez-Alegria, the incoming station commander, and Peggy Whitson, who has flown one long-duration station mission and is training to command a second.