Living Underwater

Latest update February 12, 2019 Started on February 12, 2019

During this expedition I study the changes in human physiology and psychology in response to living in an underwater habitat, at 60 feet deep, and explore the ocean, as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO).

February 12, 2019
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I am extremely honored and beyond excited that I was selected by NASA to be part of the crew on the next NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation (NEEMO) 23. Living underwater in the Aquarius habitat is currently the best space analog where we can prepare for lunar and deep space explorations. There will be several research projects to help us better understand potential challenges that come with living in such an extreme environment and test several emerging technologies inside the habitat and during simulated spacewalks, called extravehicular activities (EVAs). Among many other research objectives, the mission will include testing tracking and augmented reality devices, space exercise equipment, lunar landing simulator and specialized equipment for lunar evacuation. We will also work with a scanning electron microscope that will be operated underwater for the first time and we will have several marine science objectives that focus on sponge and coral research, while simulating lunar geological exploration. In addition, our team will run a series of tests to pinpoint the physiological and psychological changes that occur under such conditions.
I will use my ROV to monitor the seafloor, collect plankton samples and detect marine fluorescence around the habitat. The best part is that I will be able to work alongside such accomplished and inspiring women, such as Samantha Cristoforetti, Jessica Watkins and Dr. Shirley Pomponi. The next couple weeks will be pretty intense, but can't wait to contribute to science and humanity on the way to lunar and deep space exploration.

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We are continuing to prepare for the NEEMO XXIII mission as the start date is quickly approaching. There is still a lot to do before June. The new team is getting extensive training on how to assist with the experiments from Mission Control. Here are some photos as we practice on how to collect fast and accurate measurements on body composition changes, autonomic function, heart rate, sleep quality, cognitive function, stress, reaction time, working memory, vision, taste perception, dexterity and muscle strength. The mission timeline is very tight so we have to make sure that those few minutes we are getting will be enough for us to accomplish the data collection.

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One morning I looked out the window and saw something at the bottom of our pool. I run out to see what it might be and I decided that the ROV will be perfect to further explore who is this unexpected the video to get an update on my current maneuvering abilities (hint: needs improvement) and to find out who was the visitor in our pool. Of course, the visitor was later released back in the wild.

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Great piloting! Can't wait to see you do the same thing through the moon pool in the habitat!

Testing the Trident ROV in the pool while preparing for the upcoming expeditions. (Btw, do you know about my other expedition, the Manta Rays of Brazil? if not, you can follow it here:
I find it relatively easy to manouver the ROV in the pool when I can follow it with my eyes how it responds, but still having difficulty operating it when I look at only the screen of the controller...I guess that is the disadvantage of never playing video games with similar controllers


Here is the first photo of our new team! After the first, 3-hours long training session the new team is starting to prepare for the NEEMO 23 mission. Students and collaborators from the University of South Florida will help coordinating the psychological and physiological experiments from the mission control.

Csilla, has anyone investigated inviting citizen science/students on these missions?
I mean as researchers within the lab at depth?

Today I received the Trident OpenROV and I could not wait until the morning to try it out, so I tested it in the pool! It was fairly easy to set it up and make it work and I really enjoyed practicing the basic maneuvering! Videos coming soon!


In this post I would like to introduce you to our team we worked with during NEEMO 22!

As you can see on the team photo, many people contributed to the success of the mission, so I won`t be able to mention everyone in this post. One of the biggest highlight of this experience for me was that I was able to work together with such highly professional people. I have never worked with people who were able to focus on their highly demanding tasks from morning to evening so efficiently while adjusting to dozens of other projects and people, and whenever any problems or changes to schedules came up e.g. due to weather or other factors they always stayed focused and quickly found a solution together.

The main priority of the mission directors, Bill and Marc from NASA was to make sure that everyone was safe and productive during the mission. They oversee all activities and make all the major decisions. Scientists and astronauts joined us from the European Space Agency (ESA) and from the Japanese Space Station as well and participated in the mission as crew member, accomplished several scientific objectives and provided a lot of assistance with the operation of the mission control.

The next photo shows the crew members of the NEEMO 22 mission: Kjell, astronaut from NASA, Pedro, astronaut from ESA, Trevor, planetary geologist from NASA and my husband, Dominic representing USF, IHMC and Ketone Technologies. The two habitat technicians, Sean and Otter had the extremely important role of keeping the crew safe and the habitat functional during the mission. (On the photo from left to right: Pedro, Dominic, Sean, Otter, Kjell, Trevor)

The site is managed by Florida International University and their people assisted with all logistics connected to diving and boating. Very professional people who take safety in and on the water seriously. To accomplish our research objectives we had a team of colleagues from other Institutes and students helping out. On the photo from left to right the first is Kristen, who helped us with everything. She coordinated all the logistics and made sure everything goes smooth. Next to Kristen is Andrew, a super talented and driven graduate student at USF who coordinated the experiments on sleep studies, collecting heart rate variability with some cool devices and collected data on changes in body composition. Next to Andrew is myself and my husband, Dominic. As a crew member he was the subject of all the experiments that were designed for them. On his right are Janine and Chris, also from USF, who helped with all the data collection, whenever it was needed.

On the next photo Steve, -director of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory at the University of Central Florida-, and me: we were responsible for the experiments on changes in psychological function, for collecting data on working memory, reaction time, risk decision making, stress, individual and team cognition, sensory and motor function changes.

Many more people to mention who worked tirelessly before, during and after the 10 days mission, but I will write more about them and about each research projects in the next posts.

This year our research team will change, new projects will be added, other people will join us to make sure we can accomplish all the exciting experiments, so stay tune until the next post!

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I am happy to share the great news with you that the S.E.E. (Science Exploration Education) Initiative contacted me that they are donating an ROV for the project! So looking forward to working with the Trident ROV which will be an extremely valuable tool during the NEEMO mission, but first I will have to set it up for the specific experiments that I would like to use it for. I am going to keep you updated about the progress once I receive it and get the first underwater images!
In the meantime you can watch master filmmaker and explorer James Cameron and OpenROV co-founder David Lang discuss the S.E.E. Initiative at the National Geographic Explorers Festival:

YES! Awesome! I will follow this one closely for sure! For Science!

Before I would get into describing the experiments in more detail, I wanted to give an overview about the habitat itself, where the experiments take place. Aquarius is a fully equipped underwater laboratory and living space that has several components. It is a 82-ton double-lock pressure vessel that is about 14-meters long by 3-meters in diameter. The scientists enter and exit the habitat through the 20-m3 wet porch, which contains an open moon pool, dive equipment storage areas, and hot water heater and shower. The basic layout can be seen on the drawings.

After the wet porch the next compartment is the 14-m3 "entry lock," which contains bench space for computers and experiments, power equipment, life support controls, small viewports and bathroom facilities. The largest living space is the 40-m3 "main lock." It includes benches for the six-person crew, computer work stations, two large viewports, kitchen facilities that include a microwave, instant hot water dispenser, refrigerator, sink, and dining and work areas. The main lock also contains life support controls, so both the entry and main locks can be independently pressurized.

The Aquarius is standing on a 116-ton structure that provides a stable and level support base for the habitat. Each of the four legs contains 25 tons of lead ballast.

There is a constant 3 atmosphere absolute pressure inside the habitat, so a human body is going to start getting dangerously saturated with nitrogen if someone spends more time in there than the diving limits (22 min). After 24 hours the participants` body becomes completely saturated, that is when they are announced to become Aquanauts. Quickly returning to the surface from that point would be lethal.

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This is really exciting Csilla! Looking forward to following along!

The Aquarius Reef Base is an underwater habitat, located around 5 miles off Islamorada in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This undersea laboratory is sitting on the ocean floor at ~62 feet (19 meters) below the surface and is one of the three undersea laboratories in the world dedicated to science and education, to the study and preservation of marine ecosystems. Scientists here use cutting edge research to understand coral reefs, ocean acidification, climate change, fisheries and the overall ocean health.

The habitat also serves to test emerging technologies that can potentially be used in space missions in the future and can be used to study human physiology in response to living in saturation for extended periods of time. Of course, it presents a unique opportunity to study marine life from the habitat: it is possible to go out and walk on the seafloor as a simulated spacewalk (called extravehicular activity: EVA), but these visits are restricted in time and distance. Aquarius was built in Victoria, Texas, in 1986 and operations first began in the United States Virgin Islands, in St. Croix’s Salt River Canyon in 1988. After 13 missions and Hurricane Hugo, Aquarius was relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina in 1990 where it was refurbished and it was deployed at its present location in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The habitat is connected to a 10meter diameter life support buoy that floats over the habitat, which serves as a communication tower, it has over 70-square meters of inside workspace, two diesel-powered generators, two air compressors, VHF radios, a cell phone, and a microwave broadcasting system. It is linked to Aquarius by a three-inch diameter umbilical which is comprised of hoses that supply air from the compressors and oxygen from storage flasks, power lines from the generators, and data and communications cables. The microwave telemetry system provides reliable audio, video, and data transmission between Aquarius and shore. Usually 6 people stays in the habitat, which is a about the size of an RV.

Click on the link for an interactive virtual tour of the habitat!

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Expedition Background

I have been so fortunate that in 2017 I was involved in the NEEMO 22 mission. If you are not familiar with this abbreviation: it stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. These couple-day long missions take place at an underwater habitat, called Aquarius Reef Base, off Key West once a year. It is a space analog, where they simulate space missions and often previous or future astronauts are the crew members together with scientists. One purpose of these missions is to prepare future astronauts for high stress situations, while continuously facing high task load in a confined space, from where there is no easy way to return. The other main objectives are to study changes in human physiology and psychology in response to living in saturation, as well as to test new technologies that potentially will be used during space missions in the future. Of course, living underwater for 10 days provides an excellent opportunity to study the ocean and its inhabitants in a way that otherwise would not be possible. We are starting to prepare for the next mission and I am excited to share this adventure with you as a National Geographic Open Explorer!

I was a child the first time I heard about an underwater habitat, I think it was an experiment in Mediterranean waters, I remember that there was also talk of something called Sealab, and Commander Cousteau tested his "floating saucer" for the first time.      It seemed that the conquest of the bottom of the sea was an inevitable fact, what little idea we had of how big the sea is and how dangerous are its unleashed forces.        But there you are, and little by little, the dreams become real.
This is very exciting and I'm so glad I can follow you on your adventure.
Thank you for your kind and encouraging words!

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