Getting ready for Mars or the far deep bottom of the ocean. Some day, water astronauts like this man, will be able to use new technology and science to actually go down to repair oil leaks or perform submarine rescues. Photo NASA and Edit International
NASA'S UNDER WATER SANCTUARY
By Noel Young
NASA'S UNDER WATER SANCTUARY
By Noel Young
The memorable phrase from the TV series Star Trek "To Boldly Go Where no man has gone before" has taken a surprising new turn: now "space the final frontier" has for the moment become the bottom of the ocean and two words: Oil Spill
James Cameron, the creator of the world's best-selling movies (space epic Avatar and undersea drama Titanic ) wanted to use techniques from the discovery of the Titanic two miles done on the ocean bottom, to tackle the horrendous BP oil leak, one mile down in the Gulf of Mexico. BP snubbed Cameron but have now fortunately done the job themselves, staunching the flow of oil their own way.
Meantime NASA the American space agency has been training its astronauts to operate in extreme environments - by sending them to the bottom of the ocean as well.
Six astronauts have just spent two weeks 65 feet down off the Florida Keys working on tasks in a simulated space environment that they might find on the planet Mars.
If only, those talented NASA engineers had been able be diverted to solve BP's problems on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Things might have been fixed faster - but right now the enormous pressure a mile down rules that dream out.
Someday, however, the crushing gravity of Jupiter might have to be tackled - and if anyone in NASA can solve that, working on an oil leak at that great depth might be a cinch.
Meantime, the challenge is planets with less gravity than earth.
For 14 days early this summer, six men led by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, lived in surroundings mimicking Mars at the bottom of the ocean off Key Largo in Florida. There the six took on the challenges that astronauts might find on another planet, or even a Martian moon or an asteroid.
One of them Andrew Abercromby , who fell in love with space after a trip to America from Scotland when he was 17, is now at the heart of America's new space effort, which may be headed to Mars now that an early return to the Moon has been ruled out.
The project is called NEEMO - short for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation.
On the phone from the bottom of the ocean Andrew, who celebrated his 30th birthday there, explained to me, “The idea is to use the buoyancy effect of water to simulate the gravity of any planet or asteroid. From earth gravity all the way to zero gravity .
“ I've been down here 10 days so far and I've really been enjoying it. I've been never had any experience like it. Most people haven't!”
“The other day I was out there for 31/2 hours working in a heavy space suit. I finished up with a few bumps and bruises and I was really tired out. But it was great going back to our ocean-bottom home - a long narrow cylinder about nine feet in diameter- and having dinner with my mates. It’s a bit like camping”
To make it all seem real, there was a spaceship mockup on the seabed , 45 feet wide and 28 feet high, including a 10-foot- high crane and a rover vehicle slightly larger than a full-size sports utility vehicle.
The crew simulated “spacewalks”, operating the crane and maneuvering vehicles as explorers would setting up a base on another planet. They even had to ferry an injured comrade to the spaceship lander.
They couldn't pop up to surface 62 feet above although it would only take minutes to do so. “We would get the bends,“ says Andrew, “and it could kill you.” When they did return to the surface, they were decompressed very gradually .
Andrew's love of space began 13 years ago when, as a 17-year -old at Buckhaven High School, in Fife, Scotland he was selected to take up a surprise invitation to spend three
weeks at the International Space Academy, in Houston Texas, home of the Johnson Space Center.
“To be honest up until that point , I hadn’t been all that interested in space,” he told me .
“In fact my flight to America was the first time I had even been on a plane.”
By coincidence his host in Houston was Chris Hadfield, commander of the Key Largo mission . Chris at that time had already been in space. “It was really something - sharing my breakfast cereal with a real-life astronaut,” said Andrew.
“ It was literally a life changing experience for me. I met engineers, scientists astronauts you name it - all the members of the team involved in space exploration. I was hooked - and decided that space was to be my life.”
But there was a snag. “ I discovered there was no aerospace degree in Scotland so I did mechanical engineering at Edinburgh University.”
Andrew won an award from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers as best graduate student and spent his final year in Houston working on flight mechanics.
He became an expert on spacesuits and the Lunar Rover. “I think we’re calling it Fred now that we’re not going to the moon,” he said.
He also found a wife in Houston, aeronautics expert Kira . The couple now based in California married five years ago and have two daughters.
Disappointed that NASA is not going back to the moon? Andrew says it would have been great to spend longer on the moon's surface with pressurized Lunar Rovers.
But he adds, “If it isn't the moon we go to next, fine, as long as we are going somewhere. And yes, I’d go myself in a heartbeat.”
More photos >