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Astronauts submerge for 18 days in Aquarius undersea laboratory

Tele-medicine research and lunar exploration concept development highlight longest Aquarius Undersea Mission as part of NEEMO 9

Key Largo, FL — Starting April 3, 2006, three astronauts, a physician, and two NURC/UNCW technicians will begin living on the seafloor — at a depth of 60 feet and three miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean — using the world’s only undersea habitat, Aquarius. For NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) excursion, the team will use Aquarius to evaluate new medical techniques in remote robotic diagnostics and surgery and test human performance and health characteristics related to fatigue and stress. It is NASA’s ninth NEEMO mission and the longest Aquarius mission ever conducted.

The crew also will explore the seascape surrounding the underwater laboratory using remotely operated robotic vehicles and navigation and tracking devices as a test bed for lunar exploration. In short, this Aquarius mission will conduct experiments that simulate what might happen during medical emergencies in space, while on the moon, or on the way to Mars. Importantly, the technologies developed also have applications to enhance local medical care on our own planet by providing advanced health care diagnostics and procedures to isolated communities.

Aquarius is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The underwater habitat is used by marine scientists to study coral reefs and our coastal ocean, the U.S. Navy as a diving training and development facility, and NASA as a space analog for working and training under conditions that are similar to many of the challenges faced in outer space. Project summaries of this and previous missions are available on the Aquarius website. The unique design of Aquarius allows “aquanauts” to live and work on the seafloor for extended periods using a special technique called saturation diving. This dramatically increases the time divers can spend working in the ocean depths and provides more convenient, on-site access to science equipment and computers. The lab has advanced communication capabilities from the seafloor with broadband transmission capabilities to the Internet. The system has also proven to be extremely safe. In 19 years of operation no serious injuries have occurred.

Team leader, Canadian astronaut, and physician Dr. Dave Williams, returns to Aquarius for his second undersea mission and is among a select group of people who hold the distinction of both astronaut (STS-90, as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia) and aquanaut (Aquarius 2001-7). Joining Dr. Williams are physician Dr. Tim Broderick, University of Cincinnati, NASA Astronauts Nicole Stott and Ron Garan, and NURC/UNCW habitat technicians James Buckley and Ross Hein. Topside support for the mission includes the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery, McMaster University Centre at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ontario, where Dr. Mehren Anvari will direct the remote surgical robotic mission objectives. Marc Reagan, is the Mission Director and Bill Todd is the NEEMO Project Leader and will coordinate NASA mission objectives with UNCW Aquarius Project Director, Craig Cooper.

Throughout the mission live web cameras will be available, aquanaut journals will be posted, and educational programming will be hosted from inside the underwater laboratory. An informative video describing the activities to take place during this mission is also being served by the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

For more information:

Otto Rutten, Associate Director
Phone: (305) 451-0233
Andrew Shepard, Director
Phone: (910) 962-2446

Reporters may interview the underwater crew April 5 and 18 via satellite television. To participate, contact NASA Johnson Space Center’s newsroom at (281) 483-5111.

Additional points of contact include Kelly Humphries and Kylie Clem, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, (281) 483-5111; Julie Simard, Canadian Space Agency, Montreal, (450) 926-4370; and Fred Gorell, NOAA, Silver Spring, Md., (301) 713-9444, ext.181.

Through NASA’s Digital Learning Network, classrooms will be enabled for videoconferences with Aquarius. Students will conduct experiments of their own before talking with the aquanauts. The pre-event activities are designed to complement the NEEMO 9 mission objectives.

Mission Date: April, 2006
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