Undersea NASA Expedition a Success
NASA's NEEMO 12 crewmembers pose for a group photo at their undersea Aquarius habitat. They are: (from left) astronaut/aquanaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper (commander), astronaut/aquanaut Jose Hernandez, NASA flight surgeon Josef Schmid and Dr. Timothy Broderick of the University of Cincinnati. Habitat technicians James Talacek and Dominic Landucci can be seen through the port in the background.
Credit: NASA.

Six aquanauts returned to the surface of the Earth Friday after 12 days of mock moonwalks and robotic surgery experiments on the Atlantic Ocean floor.

The joint team of NASA astronauts, surgeons and professional divers completed a successful expedition to the Aquarius undersea laboratory, which rests more than 62 feet (18 meters) below the ocean?s surface off the coast of Key Largo in the Florida Keys.

?I think we?ve had a very full mission?we worked really hard, but we really enjoyed it,? U.S. astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, commander of the NASA Extreme Environmental Mission Operations (NEEMO) 12 team, told SPACE.com before leaving the undersea laboratory. ?I know I will be looking forward to some sunshine, and also it?ll be nice to have some fresh food.?

Joining Stefanyshyn-Piper on the Aquarius mission were fellow NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez, flight surgeon Josef Schmid and University of Cincinnati researcher Tim Broderick, who watched over telerobotic surgery experiments with a two-armed automaton dubbed Raven and another robot named M7. Rounding out the NEEMO 12 crew were professional divers James Talacek and Dominic Landucci of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which operates Aquarius for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.   

?We actually had the robots doing telerobotic surgery tasks, which was a great step forward,? Broderick said in a shore-to-sea floor phone call before coming home.

Researchers at the University of Washington's BioRobotics Lab in Seattle operated the 50-pound (22-kilogram) Raven remotely vie an Internet connection. The handy robotic surgeon and the M7 surgical automaton built by Menlo Park, California's SRI International are being studied for future applications in remote areas of the world and on long-duration spaceflights.

Schmid, NASA?s first flight surgeon ever to visit the undersea Aquarius laboratory, used the experience to identify with astronauts who launch spaceward to the International Space Station (ISS).

?To better understand how to take care of our crews, we have to actually live, fly and dive with [them],? he told SPACE.com.

NASA officials have said Aquarius, which runs about 45 feet (14 meters) long with a diameter of about nine feet (three meters), contains about the same habitable area as the space station?s Russian-built Zvezda service module, which serves as the primary living quarters for ISS crews.

The NEEMO 12 aquanauts also staged a series of undersea excursions this week using specially weighted and adjustable packs to mimic conditions on the Moon.

?This environment allows us to vary our buoyancy such that we can simulate the one-sixth gravity field effect that we?d be experiencing on the Moon,? said Hernandez, adding that he and his crewmates adjusted the pack?s center of gravity to test different configurations. ?We can take this data back to the spacesuit designers so that when we go back to the Moon?we would go with a more optimal suit design than we had in the 1970s and the Apollo era.?

NASA plans to complete the ISS by 2010, retire its three-space shuttle fleet, and launch the new Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2015 for future missions to space station and Moon.

In the nearer term, the space agency is slated to stage its next Aquarius-bound mission, NEEMO 13, beginning Aug. 13, according to the laboratory?s mission schedule.