Aquanauts: Sea Habitat for NASA

Major Jonathan Knaul (left) and US Navy ­Lieutenant Tim “Doc” Bruce, aboard the R/V Sabina, ­enroute to Conch Reef and the Aquarius

What do we really know about the Earth? Its surface is 70% water – and water is critical to most species of life on the planet – so we know that the health of our oceans play a critical role in the health of our planet and therefore human survival. We are still discovering new species of life throughout our seas, and are painfully aware that many marine species are threatened by extinction. We know that our planet is currently going through dramatic changes that greatly effect our oceans, such as warming and ocean acidification. The health of the planet is in jeopardy.

There is only one facility that greatly enhances our ability to both study the ocean and prepare for human space ­missions – the Aquarius. The world’s only permanent undersea habitat, Aquarius provides both a science capability and a space analog capability that are unparalleled. However, due to lack of funding, Aquarius is at risk of shutting down – possibly this year.

May 2012
Jonathan Knaul (Pawlik Mission)
What a unique opportunity – to spend May 2012 as a volunteer dive assistant with Aquarius during a marine biology saturation mission. We are off the Florida coast, 3.5 miles east of Key Largo, moored to the large Life Support Buoy (LSB) aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospherics Administration (NOAA) Research Vessel (RV) Sabina, in three-foot seas. The ocean current is 1/2 knots (meaning difficult to swim against). As we sit on the rear deck of the Sabina, with our feet dangling in the water ready to dive, U.S. Navy Lieutenant, Tim “Doc” Bruce, MD, and myself are going through our final checks with James, today’s dive supervisor. It is sunny with few clouds, and we are surrounded by inviting, turquoise Caribbean seas.

“You are cleared to dive”, bellows James in his Southern drawl. His words are music to my ears... SPLASH… and for the next few seconds, all I can see and hear are the bubbles. A quick sign back to the boat that we are OK, and Doc and I each dump the air from our buoyancy compensators so we begin to sink. We immediately start kicking against the current, and then, looking down through our masks, there it is! Some 40 feet almost directly below is the top of Aquarius. This has to be my tenth trip to Aquarius (also known as the Habitat) in as many days, yet the “cool factor” has not worn off ... Wow!!!

About half the size of a school bus, it is a tubular structure, with a box welded at one end, and its base plate firmly planted at 63 feet depth, amidst a sand patch on Conch Reef. The living area starts 13 feet above, at 50 feet depth. The Habitat’s various viewports (windows) are becoming apparent as we descend. I steal a glance at my surroundings as we continue to drop – the visibility is at least 100 feet and there is stunning sea life all around me. It is a busy undersea jungle.

Drawing nearer to the Habitat, I can hear the high-pitched hum of the Chiller, a large cooling system, housed exterior to the Aquarius. And suddenly, all sounds are broken by the Aquarius’ hydrophone (an underwater speaker) as Mark, one of the Aquanauts, announces that the ‘Wet Porch’ is ready to receive divers. I can hear him as clear as day through the water. I feel as if I am in a James Bond film.

Astern view of the Aquarius, where the Wet Porch is located.

As you approach the Aquarius, you’d think she has been on the sea floor for 100 years, when in fact, it has been less than 20. She is painted yellow, but almost her entire exterior surface is covered in a myriad of coral and other sea life. The spectrum of colours is awe-inspiring. And the fish! There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of fish (from Parrot and Tiger fish to Groupers and Nurse sharks), of all colours, harbouring in and around the various nooks and crannies of the Aquarius. I look back at the surface and the large vessel bouncing in the waves, and notice about 50 barracuda hovering – still below the buoy. As we approach the Habitat’s stern where the Wet Porch/Moon Pool (entry area) lies, I see a Stingray gracefully navigating the sandy bottom

I roll my whole body 180° and glide facing upward into the Moon Pool so I don’t snag my air tank on the entry frame. Gently placing my flippered feet onto the grate below, I raise my head, and voilá, I am crouched half out of the water, my head and chest sticking up inside the air atmosphere of the Wet Porch.

You may be wondering what keeps the water from entering. That is the beauty of a Moon Pool – the pressure of the air within the Habitat is the same as the water that surrounds it, and thus the water cannot enter, even though the pool is open to the Habitat. With fresh air continuously pumped into the Habitat, every so often the pressure within the Habitat builds up, and the Moon Pool literally burps its excess air into the ocean. In a sense, the Aquarius breathes. And with all of its various life support systems, it is a living machine at the bottom of the sea.

Doc and I don’t waste time – we are limited to just under 90 minutes stay at this depth, as we do not intend to saturate (see Aquarius Missions and Saturation Diving). We start by stowing the heavy transport pots we brought with us onto the two designated pot shelves. One of the Habitat technicians will open them later and unstow the contents. (Pots are industrial sized paint cans that Aquarius staff have converted into sealed containers for transporting everything from Oreo Cookies to laptops and medical supplies – they look like huge pressure cookers). We doff our tanks and gear, stowing them on a shelf below the water line, inside the Moon Pool. Like being inside an underwater cave, we cannot fully stand up, lest we bonk our heads on the Habitat’s Wet Porch floor.

We ascend the short steps into the Wet Porch – a metal box with equivalent volume to the inside of a Chevy Suburban – a sort of ‘mud-room’ of the Habitat. The Wet Porch has several small areas for stowing gear, a fresh water shower, and various utility panels. We immediately undress down to our bathing suits only, have a quick shower, and dry off. One of the tougher maintenance requirements of operating aboard the Aquarius is to keep the ­living area clean, dry and free of salt.

Like a scene out of Star Trek, a large hatchway door slides open and one of the Habitat technicians (also called an Aquanaut) appears to greet us. Mark Halsbeck, nicknamed Otter, is one of the longest serving Aquarius staff members. An extremely competent and calm person, this is his 19th saturation mission. “Welcome aboard, gentlemen”, Mark says with a bright smile. I lost count of how many times Doc and I had visited Aquarius, but Mark is always the consummate host. He exudes a very positive, calm and confident air – exactly the kind of person you want to be living with in a hazardous, extreme environment for an extended period of time. My cheery response is pitched several tones higher than my normal voice, given the pressure that my larynx is under at the 50 foot depth.

Mark Halsbeck a.k.a "Otter."

The mission I am supporting, by providing maintenance as deckhand and dive assistant, is a marine biology expedition led by Dr. Joe Pawlik of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. There are six Aquanauts living aboard for 10 days. Two are Aquarius Habitat technicians (professional deep sea divers and regular staff) and four scientists (all graduate students of Joe’s). Dr. Pawlik and two other graduate students remain ashore at night, and join the Aquanauts for day dives only. Joe, his students, and fellow scientists have been coming to Aquarius for 20 years to conduct marine biology missions, with the research focused mostly on coral and sponges. By living aboard Aquarius, they are able to conduct dives lasting up to nine hours a day, and thus collect and process far more data than if they were constrained to conducting surface dives lasting only an hour or two at a time, with requisite long rest periods in between.

The Pawlik group’s research is focused on sponges on Florida coral reefs. More specifically, sponge demographics and their effects on water quality. Their research is critical to gauging the health of our oceans. The Giant Barrel sponge, known as the ‘Red Wood of the Sea’, is an animal (yes, sponges are animals) that has been found to live as long as 2000 years. Their numbers are becoming increasingly dominant over coral populations numbers along Florida coasts for reasons that remain unknown. Each sponge’s capacity to filter seawater is staggering, and both coral and sponges serve as harbours for tremendous numbers of marine species. It is easy to see why increasing our understanding of and ability to protect coral and sponges factors significantly in our ability to maintain the health of our oceans.

In our bathing suits now, and mostly dry in the humid air, the three of us walk through the sliding hatchway door into the first of two Aquarius airlocks, known as the Entry Lock. Similar in size to the Wet Porch, it is a utility area housing various technical panels, a small bench/sink area, and a rather tiny toilet. As we move from the Entry Lock into the Main Lock, it definitely feels like we are in a submarine, with communications and systems panels lining both sides of both airlocks. The Main Lock is the Aquarius living area; it is approximately 30 feet long by 12 feet in diameter. To my left is the Galley, complete with a microwave oven (but no open heating sources), and to my right is a bank of utility panels and communications gear – Aquarius receives full internet, telephone and radio access via the main LS Buoy above us. Ahead, on the port side is the dining table, which is slightly smaller than a table for two at a restaurant. The dining table is dominated at the wall end by a very large viewport – like a stunning mural – with all kinds of colourful fish swimming slowly by. Some of the fish peer in, and I wonder who is in who’s fishbowl – an intriguing paradox. Still further ahead, making up the bow of Aquarius, are the Sleeping Quarters, with three berths stacked on each side, and another large viewing port right at the tip of the bow.

Outside (from left): Commander/CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield, Andrew Abercromby, and NASA Astronaut Tom Marshburn. Inside the Aquarius: Habitat Techs James Talacek and Nate Bender.

I greet the other five Aquanauts and quickly make my way back to the Wet Porch where I assist with maintenance work. Doc remains within the Main Lock to conduct his daily Sick Call – ­although, as I glance back, he is grinning from ear to ear as he eats a Double Decker Oreo Cookie and chats with the Aquanauts.

I spend the next 20 minutes emptying the two pots, coiling and affixing some wire, and tightening a few panel screws. It is really simple stuff, and I could not be happier to do it. Doc arrives, having finished Sick Call (and his cookie). A couple of very minor issues required treatment, but all in all, everyone was healthy and happy. Even small cuts and bruises must be immediately treated for saturation divers, as wounds will readily fester and expand in the humid, enclosed atmosphere of an underwater habitat on the sea floor.

Doc and I suit up, re-don our gear in the Moon Pool, check our air, and head “outside” to help Steve Groover install two internet-feed cameras. A retired United States Marine with three combat deployments, Steve is another highly professional member of the Aquarius staff, and a very focused diver. It’s a pure pleasure to work with him. Once the cameras and cables are installed, we make our way back to the Moon Pool, pick up the two now-empty pots, and bring them back to the surface. For the short remaining time allowed in the dive, Doc and I head back down with wire scrub brushes for cleaning the manually operated valves all around the Aquarius that control her various life support systems. It is an almost daily requirement to scrape the sea growth off of the valves and piping. The rest of the sea life clinging to Aquarius is left untouched, but the valves must remain free and clean to retain functionality. While we clean, we are surrounded by hundreds of vibrant tropical fish, the likes of which also insist on protecting their territories around the Habitat by biting at any exposed skin, like surreal insects nipping at a large, exposed intruder.

I spent an entire month diving an average of three times a day for maintenance work on the Aquarius, and I loved every minute of it. Research missions like Dr. Pawlik’s are extremely important to the health of our planet, and I am grateful that such a facility exists.

In addition to the amazing opportunities for serious ocean research, nowhere on the planet can NASA replicate a space mission as effectively, in a truly isolated and hazardous environment, as with the Aquarius. And there is no one better to share what it is like to live aboard the Aquarius than Chris Hadfield; a former fighter pilot, two-time Shuttle veteran, a space walker, and most recently, the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station (launched 19 Dec 2012). Chris Hadfield lived aboard the Aquarius for 10 days during a NASA mission called NEEMO 14.

Chris Hadfild (2nd from left), Andrew Abercromby (2nd from right) and the other members of the NEEMO 14 crew, seated at the dining table aboard Aquarius.

May 2011
Chris Hadfield (NEEMO 14)
Nighttime aboard Aquarius: it is pitch black on the ocean floor. All of our dives to this point have been during the day, working outside in simulated spacesuits, developing hardware, procedures and techniques that future astronauts will use on the Moon and Mars. But now, for the first time, I am climbing out of the Wet Porch in darkness.

I’m not wearing SCUBA gear. To better simulate walking on another planet, all of our research dives have been done wearing a suit and helmet, our bodies weighted down to simulate the right amount of gravity, connected to Aquarius via a long hose supplying air and communications. From the Wet Porch I turn around, bend, and lower myself by hand over the edge, like a kid getting down from a tree fort. My feet feel for the hard sand of the bottom, my hands let go, and suddenly I’m standing alone, blinking and looking into the blackness.

I can’t see anything. The Wet Porch was brightly lit for safety, and it takes a while for my eyes to adjust. Slowly the night world revels itself.

Familiar shapes begin to loom out of the darkness. Even though I recognize them as the legs and belly of Aquarius, a ­primal fear of the dark makes everything seem ominous and foreboding. I have to consciously remind myself that this is the same place where I have been walking and working for days, and only my perception has changed. It takes a deliberate effort to start walking away from the comfort of Aquarius into the ink of night.

Fortunately, I’m not alone. Andrew Abercromby, a fellow Aquanaut and friend of over 10 years, is with me. We joke and chat to ease our nerves, and decide to walk to the bow of Aquarius, where lights are few and complete darkness is just a few steps away.

With my night vision adapted and comfort level rising, I turn my back on Aquarius and walk into the void. By looking carefully I can see the contrast between sand and coral, and walk along a small valley. I carry a flashlight if needed, but leave it off to let my eyes fully adjust. I start to see details, fish appear as dark, hanging shadows, and the new world around me begins to feel familiar. I wave my hand in front of my helmet’s visor, and it is strangely lit up by small, blue-bright sparkles. “Andrew, look at this!” I exclaim. “Phosphorescence!” The sparkles are tiny creatures that have adapted to the darkness, and, like fireflies, can emit brief bursts of light. Whether it is for their protection or so they can find each other I’m not sure, but for me it is pure magic. I feel like Merlin the wizard, with sparks and fairy dust trailing every effortless flick of my wrist.

We both stop and play with the new sensation before walking further into the night. I point my flashlight down and briefly turn it on to freeze the nightlife in a strobe of light. Small fish goggle at the sudden illumination. A crawling sea slug is oblivious to me, a thick, fat worm on the ground (no prettier than its name). I spot a spiny lobster, and blink my light on and off to follow him as he scurries from one hiding place to another.

Andrew has climbed onto the Aquarius structure, and is looking in the window by the dining table, an extraterrestrial being peering in at the Earthlings inside. They talk and laugh at each other, taking pictures. Andrew turns, and his backlit silhouette sends a shadow out into the translucence of the water, a rock star on a strange stage. I turn and decide to walk to the limit of my air hose, to truly experience night on the ocean floor.

The darkness and the silence of the environment are profound. All I hear is my breathing, the bubbles rushing away, jostling and popping. It’s as if my inhaling and exhaling is the only sound that exists, and thus my life is somehow the centre of everything. I slowly raise my flashlight to the darkest part of the night, squint my eyes a bit to peer carefully, and quickly turn it on to see what’s there.

A shark. Right at the limit of my light the familiar tapered grey shape and pointed fin is unmistakable. My whole body lurches involuntarily, and I snap my light off (as if that will help).

I’m afraid of sharks. I’m supposed to be. They are ancient, primitive killing machines, powerful bodies driving sharp teeth and crushing jaws, superb predators of less-capable prey. Like me.

My rational mind and my irrational emotions have a quick battle with each other. My gut tells me to turn and run (however pathetic that would be underwater). But at the same time I realize that the shark has been there all along, and my sudden awareness of him doesn’t mean he’s suddenly going to attack me. I stand there, frozen, deciding what to do next.

Not wanting to tempt fate (nor further panic myself), I leave my light off and head back to the Aquarius. The necessity to tend my air hose gives me a welcome distraction as I walk back. As I coil it and work my way around the fragile coral, I suddenly realize what just happened – I had an alien encounter! Even though the shark and I live on the same planet, we exist in different worlds. Only through human ingenuity and invention have I been able to leave my normal existence and explore his.

The parallel with how walking on the Moon must have felt for Neil, Buzz and the others strikes me full-force – what will it feel like when the first of us walks on Mars?

This experience, this incredible NASA/ NOAA undersea ­habitat, isn’t only letting us see and understand a unique and fragile part of the Earth’s ecosystem. It is letting us see the future. I feel a wave of kinship for explorers past, present and future. And a great sense of privilege to be part of a team that is helping to expand the human experience into strange new worlds. One small step at a time.

I loop my air hose back onto its mount, clamber back onto the Wet Porch, pull off my helmet and casually mention that I saw a shark. But inside, I feel a re-affirmed sense of wonder at our place in the universe, and resolve to be as good a member of this great team as I can possibly make myself.

NASA rover and lander ready for tests

As this article goes to print, the authors have learned that the Aquarius will be taken over by the University of Florida and shall continue with its saturation missions.

To dive down and explore the Aquarius, visit this link: https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/104285654447254500200/albums/posts

Jonathan Knaul began his CF career 27 yrs ago – primarily flying helicopters in support of the Army, both in Canada and overseas (Kosovo and Afghanistan). He attended RMC, obtained a PhD and, after several years service as a combat pilot, was trained at the Ministry of Defence test pilot school in Marseilles, France. He is currently an active experimental test pilot and Flight Test Safety Officer for the RCAF, in Cold Lake.
Chris Hadfield was a CF-18 pilot and test pilot in the Canadian Forces before turning to the allure of space. He was chosen as one of four new Canadian astronauts in 1992. He became the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in orbit, the only Canadian to ever board the Russian space station Mir and was the first Canadian to walk in space. In December 2012 Chris Hadfield was launched to the Inter­na­tional Space Station where he will take over as Commander for the second half of the 5-month mission.
© FrontLine Defence 2013