In the world’s only underwater laboratory, located 19 meters beneath the surface, some five kilometers off Key Largo, four U.S. astronauts prepare to visit an asteroid.
Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean waters, the four astronauts simulate the daily routine of a crew that would someday travel to collect samples from rocks orbiting the earth.
Part of NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program, which is designed to test concepts related to future visits to near-Earth asteroids, the team is spending nine days within the 37-square-meter lab called Aquarius, which is operated by Florida International University.
By conducting experiments and testing equipment and procedures, Astronaut Janette Epps says the group is recreating as close as possible the expected deep space mission.
“Commander Aki and I, we had to get ready to go out to do one of the mock spacewalks that we do underwater, and that took a little bit of time to get up and running because we had a few issues with communication in our helmets so that we can be able to talk to the crew inside the habitat and the topside," said Epps, explaining that she and her colleagues often encounter real-life problems.
Living about 60 beneath the surface means they do not have to decompress each time they venture out of Aquarius, and can conduct longer dives.
While inside the lab, they conduct science experiments focused on human health and behavior.
“We’re all wearing badges that track, together with other parameters, our proximity or social interaction, for understanding better which reactions people have in such close environments to apply this knowledge for future exploration missions," said astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
And the cosmic quartet isn't alone. Two "aquanauts," technicians with extensive knowledge and experience in the undersea lab, are also on board. They take care that all on-board systems function properly, including the mock spacesuits.
Mission commander and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide says they know everything about the facility.
“They are the people behind the scenes," he said. "We just do the mission but without their help we can’t do anything."
Project NEEMO is one of NASA’s so-called "analog missions," whose goal is to train astronauts for the extreme environments they may encounter during future space explorations.