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Amid Turtles And Sharks, Astronauts Train For Lunar Mission

This handout from NASA shows flight surgeon Josef F. Schmid(R) and astronaut/aquanaut Jose M. Hernandez working 18 meters(60 feet) below the surface of the ocean to prepare future missions to the Moon.
by Patrick Moser
Aquarius Underwater Laboratory (AFP) May 17, 2007
Surrounded by friendly sharks and curious turtles 18 meters (60 feet) below the surface of the ocean, NASA astronauts are working to prepare future missions to the Moon. Sporting huge, bright yellow helmets and dive suits -- sans fins -- astronaut Jose Hernandez and NASA flight surgeon Josef Schmid took lunar-like slow-motion leaps as they assembled a tubular structure on the ocean floor.

Inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, two robotic arms telecommanded from thousands of kilometers (miles) away performed surgery on a simulated patient.

The undersea venture is part of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Extreme Environment Mission Operations, which study moon-walking techniques, space medicine, and other space exploration activities.

"Ultimately, what we are trying to do is develop operational concepts for lunar missions," said Bill Todd, the project manager for this NEEMO mission, the 12th since 2001.

The team, made up of two astronauts, a flight surgeon, a University of Cincinnati doctor and two technicians, are spending 12 days in their underwater home Aquarius, a coral-encrusted cylinder that looks a lot like a yellow submarine.

Located 5.5 kilometers (3.5 miles) off Key Largo, Florida, the research facility is touted as the world's only underwater laboratory.

The habitat and the surrounding environment are as close as one can get to replicating conditions in space, experts say.

"We classify this as an extreme environment," said Todd of the United Space Alliance, which operates NASA's space shuttle fleet.

The under-water habitat offers the closest thing to space in studying medical issues that could affect astronauts, for instance.

They know that, like in space, latent viruses in the aquanauts' bodies replicate far more rapidly than in Earth's atmosphere.

NASA hopes this and other NEEMO missions at Aquarius will eventually help researchers figure out what causes the potentially debilitating multiplication of viruses in space.

"There's no other place we know of where we'd get this kind of response," said Todd, sporting a mission T-shirt that proclaims: "It's one small fin kick for a man, one giant stride for mankind."

Another goal of the mission is to evaluate the use of tele-robotics in performing emergency surgery on space flights, by simulating operations with the two remotely-controlled surgical robots.

The aquanauts are also looking at a number of issues NASA wants to resolve as it prepares to resume manned flights to the Moon and eventually send man to Mars.

During their "moonwalks," the aquanauts are weighted in such a way as to simulate lunar gravity, which is one-sixth that of Earth. Hernandez and Schmid looked a lot like a lunar team as they took giant leaps sending their tethers floating upward. On a tight timeline, they ran through the sand, pulling, pushing and tipping tubular structures that are part of the lunar construction exercise.

The astronauts also pick up bits of dead coral as they would lunar samples on an exploration of the Moon.

They spend several hours a day on what is known in space talk as Extra Vehicular Activities, and then return to home-under-the-sea through the Aquarius's double lock system.

The module is more cramped than the International Space Station, according to astronauts who have visited both.

The 81-tonne habitat has six bunks, a shower, toilet, microwave, refrigerator and computers linked to the shore base in Key Largo.

Air is provided by an "umbilical cord" that runs from a support buoy moored above the facility.

Just like in space, jumping ship is just not an option.

Because they spend so long under water, the aquanauts' bodies are saturated with nitrogen. Before they return to the surface, the interior pressure of the Aquarius is gradually reduced to surface levels over 17 hours. Skipping the decompression step could be lethal for the team members.

But half way through their May 7-18 stay, the aquanauts did get a surprise that broke a little the tedium of the freeze-dried food consumed in space, when the topside crew delivered a freshly baked pizza in a vacuum-sealed container.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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