Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world.
Looking ahead to planned missions to the moon, an asteroid and Mars, Western space agencies send their astronauts to this underwater lab, 20 meters below the surface, off the coast of Key Largo, Florida, to test procedures, equipment and how to tolerate living with each other in a confined space.
“Obviously, you need people that are willing to adjust, that are easygoing, that are ready to lead but also follow, and so you need a good balance of people in order to run a place like this, to run a mission smoothly," said Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano.
European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, NASA astronauts Serena Aunon and David Coan, and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai are the 20th crew of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, a program known as NEEMO.
A large surface support crew, plus two experienced divers living with them in the lab, help the astronauts train for different environments.
“Outside, here, in the ocean, we can use our buoyancy control devices to create very specific conditions where we can be fully microgravity or in reduced gravity and simulate being on the surface of a planet or on an asteroid or on a moon," said Parmitano.
Much of their time is devoted to testing new procedures.
“We also implemented an artificial time delay so that all our communications are artificially delayed to study what would happen if we are on the surface of Mars and we cannot have a direct answer instantaneousl," Parmitano said.
Sometimes the tools developed for space do not work well underwater.
“We are trying to utilize our developing tools for our real scientific research but sometimes it doesn't work well in the water, so in this case we have to use just normal tools which marine scientists use for collecting samples," said Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai.
The samples are collected for the owner of the underwater lab, Florida International University, whose scientists are going to use them in their own studies.