By Megan Gannon
There aren’t any places on Earth where astronauts in training can experience — all at once — the isolation, cramped quarters and microgravity of life in space. But one lab comes close.
Called the Aquarius Reef Base, the school-bus-size habitat is anchored on the seafloor 62 feet (19 meters) underwater and six miles (10 kilometers) off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. The lab is currently home to four astronauts (and two technicians) who are part of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program. The crewmembers are testing equipment and procedures that could one day be used during trips to an asteroid or Mars.
“We’re not really deprived of much,” said Jeanette Epps, who spent more than seven years in the CIA and was selected to become a NASA astronaut in 2009. For their nine-day NASA mission, dubbed NEEMO-18, the crewmembers were allowed to bring iPads, iPhones, regular toiletries and a few sets of clothes.
“We have lots of windows and we got great views out here with fish,” NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei told Live Science yesterday (July 23) in a live news conference from the Aquarius seafloor habitat. “I am certain that none of us have felt claustrophobic.”
Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide — the commander of NEEMO-18, and the only one of the crew who has been to space — agreed and said their living quarters feel similar in size to one or two modules on board the International Space Station. It helps that their hygiene is good, Hoshide said, and they have a real shower — a luxury compared with the no-rinse shampoo and washcloths that astronauts use in space. Though Vande Hei admitted, “We’re probably less sensitive to smell as we stay down here longer and longer.”
The crew can also go outside basically any time they want. They just need to put on scuba gear first.
Life in Aquarius might be easier than it is in space, but sometimes mission controllers intentionally make it hard.