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Hold Your Breath: ‘Aquastronauts’ Go Underwater to Train for Space

Katie Linendoll

Have you ever wondered where astronauts train before heading into space? They actually travel in the opposite direction of the International Space Station: they go underwater.

Since 2001, NASA has sent astronauts-in-training to take part in the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program, alongside astronauts from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. So far, they’ve completed 19 missions, each of which comprises a six- to ten-day stay in the habitat.

I had the rare opportunity to join a group of NASA astronauts-in-training underwater at the Aquarius base off of Key Largo, Florida, located 63 feet underwater. The base offers the would-be space-faring candidates the most extraterrestrial experience available while still on Earth. The lab also hosts other underwater adventurers from time to time, and made headlines over the summer when Fabien Cousteau — grandson of the renowned explorer Jacques Yves-Cousteau — spent 31 days living there underwater with a team of researchers.

NASA Astronauts Prepare for Life in Zero Gravity 1:02

While the training program takes place under the waves, an extensive team topside makes it all happen. I first met up with Jesse Buffington, who is the Exploration Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) Tools Development project manager with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in the NASA control room that is an hour (by boat) from the astronaut’s underwater base. He said that NEEMO has built confidence and self-reliance in trainees while also facilitating hardware development for the NASA technical team. The extreme circumstances and varying landscapes work well to simulate isolated conditions similar to space. “We have significantly more confidence and more foundation to make decisions,” says Buffington.

Participating astronauts agree. Nicole Stott, who was part of the crew aboard the shuttle Discovery in 2009 and 2011, took part in NEEMO 9, an 18-day mission that is the longest NEEMO to date. She says the underwater training really helps prepare astronauts "to live and work in space in an equivocally real experience. The situational awareness is the same,” Stott says. “For example, with the nature of the Aquarius extreme environment, you can’t just swim to the surface.”

Working with the NEEMO program fits in with the goals of Florida International University (FIU), which operates the lab. According to Aquarius Reef Base director Thomas Potts, "FIU's mission is to leverage the unique capabilities of Aquarius to address real-world problems and inspire the next generation of explorers."

It takes about 30 people topside from NASA, FIU and often the Navy to support four astronauts in the aquatic training program. The trainees live in the depths of the ocean, in a space that’s not much larger than a small bus, measuring 43 feet by 9 feet, with space to sleep six persons. Not surprisingly, there is little space for privacy. A full control room monitors the trainees' every move through Outland POV hardwired cameras, which stream video back to the base.

Katie Linendoll

To maximize time spent underwater, the divers live in the facility for about a week and do two underwater dives per day, totaling around eight hours of dive time. Sleep is imperative for those in training, and a minimum of eight hours per night is recommended. For nourishment, the trainees live on ready-to-eat packaged foods used by backpackers and campers.

Each NEEMO mission supports a different theme or purpose, and past trips have included training activities like robotic surgery and telemedicine; examining how rovers work in harsh landscapes; researching the physiological and psychological impact of an extreme environment with limited contact; developing hardware, such as biometric monitoring; methods of exercise in an extreme environment; nutrition; the impact of gravity on bones; how space impacts digestion; asteroid mining; and examining different methods for removing samples during a “spacewalk.”

Currently, only 40 individuals are training as astronauts with NASA, although not all of them will have the chance to participate in NEEMO. Those who have participated get the bragging rights of being an “aquastronaut” — a combination of astronaut and aquanaut,which means they’ve spent 24 hours underwater. To put the rarity of those accomplishments in perspective, there are more climbers who have summited Mt. Everest than there are aquanauts. There are even fewer aquastronauts.

So you want to be an aquanaut? Don’t get your hopes up! While FIU leases out the facility for around $15,000 a day, the objective of the lease must meet the lab’s educational mission. Don’t expect to see any reality show auditions from 63 feet down any time soon.