Thinking Tech

NASA astronaut speaks from the ocean floor: 'We're completely isolated'

NASA astronaut speaks from the ocean floor: 'We're completely isolated'

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Thomas Marshburn, on the NEEMO 14 mission, says being 65 feet underwater is a lot like being in space. "I'm always attracted to the windows...and we're completely isolated."

NASA's NEEMO 14 mission got underway Monday, with a crew of six people spending two weeks in a marine laboratory, Aquarius, off the coast of Florida, 65 feet below the ocean's surface.

NEEMO stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations -- this mission is part of a series of experiments to study equipment and the behavior of astronauts in harsh places. A big focus of NEEMO 14 is the 250-pound space suits -- how can they be designed to make spacewalking more natural and more comfortable?

In a SmartPlanet exclusive, I spoke this morning with Thomas Marshburn, a NEEMO crew member and medical doctor who's flown to the International Space Station and participated in three spacewalks.

Q: What have you been doing this week?

A: This is mission day number 5, so we've each done spacewalks on the ocean floor. We're testing out ideas -- good ideas -- for configurations for what we might use on another planet when we go there. We're testing equipment and we're completely enjoying the wildlife and sea environment. We're also doing life sciences experiments.

Q: What ideas are you testing?

A: When you go to another planetary surface, you have a big lander. You intend to stay for awhile, so you land with a large rover [these structures have been set up on the ocean floor by a previous crew] so you can live inside of the rover for awhile and leave your landing base. We suspect that any work on another planet will involve geology, looking for oxygen or water somewhere, and how well can we get in and out of the rover? What if we had an incapacitated crew member we had to pull into the rover?

We're also looking at ways of loading weights on the rover itself or getting geology samples on top of the lander, which is twenty feet off the ocean floor.

Also there's the space suit configuration -- we learned from Apollo that where the suit fits on your back, the center of gravity, is very important. We've designed a rack to wear on our backs that changes the center of gravity when we try to do a standard series of tasks. We don’t know what the right configuration is, but we'll find out what we learned from this.

Q: What have you learned so far?

My own personal observations, and we provide these, is that it's interesting how much you can do. There have been no showstoppers getting heavy weights into and out of space vehicles, but we have a lot of little suggestions—where to put handholds, how safely can I get in and out, should I crawl or swing on my knees, and there's moving in less gravity. We’re experiencing [by weighting the space suit] the equivalent of less gravity

Q: How does walking on the ocean floor compare to walking in space?

We're walking on a surface here so we have a gravity gradient. That helps a lot -- it's a lot of fun to bounce around. A space walk is fun also, but it's a lot more unstable -- you can be floating around in any direction and there's no one place to put your feet. It's more like a space crawl in space. You're using your hands a lot, hands and feet, and you constantly have to worry about tethers. You have to make sure you don’t go floating away—it's more like climbing on a big wall.

Q: What's it like to do a spacewalk? Is it fun? Scary?

It's both—it's fun and scary. It’s a huge honor to go out the hatch, and the view is absolutely spectacular. Aspects of it are a lot of fun -- you're inside your own little space ship in the 250-pound suit, and the work is challenging. The gloves are the equivalent of hockey gloves, and you're very busy. You're always thinking about the lines, and there's a huge sense of accomplishment when you get things done, when you can build or fix something outside the space station.

Also, to look at the earth like that is life changing. I'm still processing it -- it's a view you just can’t get here. The blackness of space is not like the black color you see on earth. It's a deep, palpable black, it's like you're looking into the infinity of space. It's still so much to process -- I'll be looking for words to describe it for the rest of my life.

Q: Do you plan to go back into space?

I hope to go back into space -- I'm in line and I could fly on the International Space Station. That’s what's available now since NASA is ending the shuttle program. I'd be living on the space station for six months. I hope that’s the case.

Q: Tell me more about the space suit.

A: I don’t know if there's ever been this intensive a study such as we're doing here on the center of gravity. The space suit is an engineering marvel when you think of everything it's got to protect you from. The glove design is a big deal, and how you move your arms with shoulder bearings, your range of motion. The ability to increase your range of motion will be critical for these kinds of operations.

With what we're doing on the ocean floor here, it's pretty complex stuff.

Q: Being able to bend and kneel and pick up rocks sounds pretty basic to me.

A: It can be complex. If your center of gravity is off and you look to the top of the lander, you almost start to fall back. That happened a few times. Bending down on one knee to pick up a rock, using a jackhammer, using a shovel, all these things can be complicated.

If it’s going to be repetitive motion and you're going out every day, you want to make sure it has limited impact. Certainly at the reduced gravity of Mars, some aspects make it easier, but our bodies not used to it.

Q: Will anything that you're doing down there apply to the space shuttle that's taking off today?

A: It's another great day for exploration. They’re doing the hard work of changing out batteries and constructing the space station, and it's inspiring to us and hopefully to a lot of people to see what this country can do.

Also, even though we're preparing for space research, we're doing a little marine research. We can live in this habitat just like a space ship, where marine scientists work, and the synergy is fascinating.

Like when I'm in space, I'm always attracted to the windows. Also the saturation is 2.5-times atmosphere, and we're completely isolated. It's 16 hours away to get back to the surface.

A giant grouper comes around and visits every now and then, especially at night, and there are different communities of fish that come around at night. A sting ray comes in the morning and covers itself in sand. We're getting to know the marine life down here.

Image: NASA/Flickr

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure