NASA to Go Boldly to the Bottom of the Sea
NASA's NEEMO 12 mission will send a pair of astronauts, two doctors and two robotic surgeons to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for tests inside the Aquarius undersea laboratory.
Credit: NASA.

Two astronauts, a veteran undersea engineer and an experienced scientist will soon find themselves in the ocean depths off the east coast of Florida in a mock space mission to test exploration concepts and learn more about working in an unforgiving, treacherous environment.

NASA on Tuesday announced the 14th expedition, which is part of NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO. The 14-day undersea mission is scheduled to begin May 10.

?Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, a veteran spacewalker, will lead the NASA expedition to the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, which rests more than 62 feet (18 meters) below the ocean's surface off the coast of Key Largo in the Florida Keys.

The NEEMO 14 mission will use the ocean floor to simulate aspects of another planet's surface and a low-gravity environment.

In October 2009, a team of aquanauts prepared for the NEEMO 14 expedition by placing mockups of a lander, rover and small crane that simulates a robotic arm near the Aquarius laboratory.

Mock space mission ahead

The NEEMO 14 crew will live aboard the underwater laboratory, venture out on simulated spacewalks, operate the crane and maneuver the vehicles in much the same way as astronaut explorers would in setting up a habitat on another planet.

As the aquanauts operate and test these developing technologies, they will provide information and valuable feedback to NASA engineers.

The crew is expected to simulate removing a mockup of the Lunar Electric Rover from the lander, retrieve small payloads from the lander and the ocean floor, and simulate the transfer of an incapacitated astronaut from the ocean floor to the deck of the craft.

The rover and lander mockups are comparable in size to vehicles that NASA is considering for future planetary exploration.

The lander mockup is wider than the entire length of a school bus, and is almost three times as high. It measures 45 feet (13.7 meters) wide and 28 feet (8.5 meters) high, including a 10-foot-high (3-meter-high) crane. The rover mockup is slightly larger than a full-size SUV, standing at approximately eight feet (2.4 meters) tall and 14 feet (4.3 meters) long.

Training for splashdown

Hadfield previously conducted two spacewalks and operated the International Space Station's robotic arm, known as Canadarm2, during the space shuttle's STS-100 mission in April 2001. He also worked extensively with the shuttle's robotic Canadarm on STS-74 in 1995.

Other team members include NASA astronaut and flight surgeon Thomas Marshburn, Lunar Electric Rover Deputy Project Manager Andrew Abercromby and Steve Chappell, a research scientist. Both Abercromby and Chappell work for Wyle Integrated Science and Engineering of Houston, an engineering firm that specializes in aerospace, information systems and integrated science and engineering.

James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington are habitat technicians and will provide engineering support.

While aboard Aquarius, the crew will perform life science experiments that are focused on human behavior, performance and physiology. The mission also includes a study of autonomous crew work. In other words, there will be periods when there is limited communication between the crew and the mission control center, much like what could potentially happen during missions to the moon or Mars.

The Aquarius laboratory is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.