KEY LARGO (CBS4) – In a few weeks NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery is set to take off. On board will be several astronauts who have been in the Florida Keys for training.
They spent weeks working, eating, and sleeping beneath the ocean in America’s inner space station called Aquarius.
Recently, during CBS4’s David Sutta’s tour of the only manned underwater research station in the world, Saul Rosser summoned up the Aquarius experience.
“There is nothing like it in the world,” Rosser said. ‘It is truly unique and spectacular.”
Rosser is the Operations Director of Aquarius. His staff took CBS4 four miles from Key Largo, 60 feet below, where we found people surfing, on the internet.
Aquarius is owned by NOAA, but operated by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Mitchell Tartt with NOAA equates Aquarius to an underwater recreational vehicle.
“It’s basically the size of a small airstream or a school bus,” said Tartt. “And you are in there with six people.”
10 Days Underwater
In this underwater motor home, scientists spend 10 days living and under the sea. It is unheard of by normal diving standards to spend more than three hours underwater due to nitrogen building up in the body.
Rosser explained, “The longer you are down, the deeper you are down, the more nitrogen goes into your body. So at a depth of 60 feet; you might have 60 minutes or so underwater before you have to come up. If you stay longer it’s like a coke can that you’ve shaken and then pop the top off. The nitrogen in your body would bubble and get into your veins and cause issues.”
Staying down days though, the nitrogen builds up to saturation. At the end of a 10 day mission, they slowly release the pressure in Aquarius over 16 hours. Slowly letting that nitrogen out, like a soda, will keep those bubbles from forming. It means for 16 hours the saturated divers are stuck inside, unable to leave.
Looking in from the outside the Aquarius is magical but swimming up underneath it and taking your first breath will blow your mind. Once inside you take a freshwater shower and dry yourself; then you step into a comfortable 74 degrees.
Inside the main compartment, Sutta found a pair of scientists studying how fish work together. The scientists spend nine hours a day collecting data on the reef. At the end of their day, they come inside this hatch to bunks for six, air conditioning, and a fully operational kitchen.
Ground Breaking Science & Aquaknots
For nearly two decades the Aquarius has been on the cusp of remarkable research. From the revelation of how much water sponges filter,132 gallons an hour. To outer space research; NASA astronauts train here.
“They want to mimic space as best as they can,” said Otto Rutten, the associate director for Aquarius with the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. “When they first started with us they, were drawn to the fact that Aquarius is approximately the same size as the American side of the International Space Station.”
Rutten has been witness to every amazing NASA mission; including doing surgery on astronauts using robots and practicing repairing the lunar lander. Even the future of space suits are tested here.
“When they went to the moon the first time; they found that they were a little top-heavy. It was easy for them to tip forward and tip over; so they are changing that.” said Rutten.
And with the internet and phones underwater they even perfected calls to the International Space Station. Do International rates apply?
Inviting the World to See
NOAA is now letting the world peer in on this amazing place through a massive outreach program being beamed to classrooms across America.
Tartt explained, “We are trying to access and engage basically the future of our oceans. Which are our kids.”
Using live webcams from inside and outside the Aquarius the staff’s tech guru Dominic Landucci has changed the way we see the ocean floor. Through some remarkable technology he’s beaming live video and audio from the ocean to classrooms across the country in English and Spanish.
NOAA is utilizing the technology to reach a new audience.
“These are significant investments. What is different here is that these are real tangible experiences,” said Tartt. “We connect a student in a classroom in California live to a diver in the water touching reefs.”
The hope is that Aquarius can not only provide insight into what is happening in our oceans today but inspire others to take interest in what will happen tomorrow.
Tartt told Sutta, “It’s easy to get here. It’s easy to look out across the water and see the beautiful sunsets and the ocean it’s a beautiful place. Spending time underwater, it takes a significant investment to become a scuba diver. We are hoping to facilitate that and kind of bring this underwater experience topside.”
Aquarius runs about 8 missions a year. The next ones are scheduled for early next year. Often you can catch the entire thing going on the web, by watching live cameras. For more information on the program, click here.