Multinational Astronauts Set to Submerge Undersea to Prep for Deep Space

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NASA, joined by the European Space Agency, intends to carry out a pair of multi-national undersea missions in the coming months, each structured to serve as an analog to future deep space as well as International Space Station activities.

Mission themes will focus on human health and performance issues; spacewalk challenges in a range of gravity conditions on yet-to-be-explored destinations that range from asteroids to the Martian moons and Mars; human and robotic interactions; and quick response training to deal with the unexpected.

The 13-year-old NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program has set July 21 and Sept. 7 for the start of nine and seven day stays aboard Aquarius, a cozy 400 square foot lab anchored to the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean, several miles east of Key Largo, Fla. Altogether, seven astronauts from Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S. as well as a European spacewalk expert will be involved.

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet during underwater training exercise. ESA

Communications delays, which range up to an average of 20 minutes between the Earth and Mars, will be but one of the challenges that the undersea astronauts and their flight controllers will face.

"It is critical that we perform science applicable to NASA's exploration goals in a high-fidelity space operational context," noted Bill Todd, the NEEMO project manager. "Life undersea is as close to being in space as possible.''

Another challenge the NEEMO astronauts will address is how best to overcome problems or changes in procedures for which they were not trained. In their exchange with control teams, the astronauts will evaluate the effectiveness of text, illustrations, photos and videos as "just in time training" tools.

Astronaut on previous NEEMO mission evaluates space walk procedures. NASA

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide will command NEEMO 18, set to get underway on July 21. The veteran of two spaceflights, including a 124 day stay aboard the ISS in 2012, will be joined by NASA's Jeanette Epps and Mark Vande Hei and the European Space Agency's Thomas Pesquet. All three await their first space flight assignments.

JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide aboard the ISS in 2012. NASA

U. S. astronaut Randy Bresnik, a shuttle flight veteran, will lead NEEMO 19, which begins Sept. 7. He will be joined by Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen and Herve Stevenin, who leads ESA spacewalk training.  Hansen and Mogensen also await their first launchings.

"Exploration doesn't just happen," notes Pesquet. "You have to make it happen, step by step, with projects like this."

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