How to Visit the Florida Keys Like a NASA Aquanaut
Practice makes perfect—especially when nobody has any idea what to expect.
In order to prepare astronauts for future missions to extreme conditions like Mars, NASA is sending six of them to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Like the European Space Agency's training program that sends astronauts into caves in Italy, the underwater expedition is intended to teach the trainees to work together while adapting to very different conditions from life on Earth's land.
The astronauts, engineers and scientists of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) team, are spending 16 days at Aquarius Reef Base in the Florida Keys. The expedition, which started on July 21, will mimic a trip to deep space.
While civilians will not be able to experience the same extreme conditions as NEEMO’s aquanauts (and really, would you want to?), they can dive close to the station and get a glimpse at how tough astronaut training can be.
The Underwater Space Station
The underwater station is located 65.6 feet underwater, five miles off the coast of Key Largo. Aquarius is an 85-ton vessel, approximately 43 feet long. Its largest living quarter is the Main Lock: The 1,400 cubic foot space includes berths for a six-person crew, work stations and a kitchen.
Inside a Marine Sanctuary
The station, owned and operated by Florida International University, is located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary—a 2,900 square mile patch of water that houses more than 6,000 species of marine life.
The pressure inside Aquarius is 2.5 times greater than surface pressure. At the end of missions, scientists must undergo a 16-hour decompression process, where the station is slowly brought back to normal pressure.
And Under Surveillance
There are 360 cameras set up all around Aquarius. You can get an interactive glimpse of the aquanauts’ view on the Florida International University website.
Aquarius is located in Conch Reef, which has one of the best-developed reef walls in the Florida Keys. Unfortunately, at the moment the area is closed off to recreational divers and only researchers are allowed. Those looking to get close should check out the neighboring Davis Reef.
An International Affair
The international crew, much like the International Space Station, includes people from the United States, Germany, Ireland and South Africa.
While underwater, the aquanauts are assembling coral tree nurseries underwater to repopulate the area, in partnership with the Coral Restoration Foundation.
Everyday the aquanauts perform “waterwalks,” to practice adjusting their buoyancy in preparation for the gravity of Mars.
Those who want to see the station can book a diving tour from an operator approved by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to lessen their impact on the delicate underwater ecosystem.