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Douglas Wheelock
IMAGE: Doug Wheelock encounters a sea turtle.
NEEMO 6 Mission Specialist Doug Wheelock encounters a sea turtle.
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NEEMO 6 Journals

NEEMO 6, Douglas Wheelock
Day 9, Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The sun is setting on Mission Day 9 here on Aquarius, and the sea is changing color to a deep blue. We've completed our mission here on the ocean floor and I will forever be changed by this experience. Our days were full of science and engineering tasks each day, both outside and inside the habitat. I found a quiet spot near the porthole window in the bunk room to try to capture this incredible adventure in words. It's a remarkable view out the window on a world that I've become familiar with, but I am still very much a stranger in this place. I can just barely make out the shimmer of last rays of sunlight on the surface. It is difficult to find words to describe the experience. We have very clear objectives each day, yet the sea meets us each morning with surprises that remind us that we are just visitors here. I came here with a professional goal to learn everything I can about living and working in an extreme environment. But, I also promised myself that I would take time to look around and try to brand the images of life under the sea in my mind, so I can tell the story of my mission and what I learned about Aquarius, myself, and the beauty of the ocean.

We spent an average of 4 to 5 hours a day outside the habitat on a variety of missions. We wear a full face mask down here, giving us the ability to communicate using ultrasound through the water. This was incredibly eye-opening for me since I've spent the last couple of years in Mission Control in Houston, supporting our space exploration aboard the International Space Station. On this mission under the sea, we had a mission control team in Houston that we communicated with while on our 'inner space walks.' It was great to be on the operational end of a real mission and to understand the importance of good, clear communication before, during, and after tasks both inside and outside Aquarius.

IMAGE: NEEMO 6 Mission Specialist Doug Wheelock
NEEMO 6 Mission Specialist Doug Wheelock.

I have a new appreciation for the sea and the complexity and vulnerability of the reef. We had the opportunity to work on the conch reef each day. A dawn dive on Mission Day 6 and a night dive on Mission Day 7 gave us a chance to view this strange world under various lighting conditions. The reef never disappointed us. There is a constant flurry of activity outside the habitat. I can't help but think of the life and death struggle that we witness each day and night out in the open ocean. If the fish aren't eating, they're looking for something to eat, and if they're not doing that, they're trying to keep from getting eaten! During our dawn dive, a large sea turtle glided by and circled back to check us out. He got about 6 inches from my mask and was looking at me as if to say, "What in the world are you doing out here at this time in the morning?" It was a wonderful sight. Most of the life on the reef is oblivious to us as we do our work. I'm glad of that, because we are all trying very hard to manage our buoyancy to keep from rising in the water column and moving dangerously close to the surface, which at this point is our enemy, since we are in saturation. But, we also are trying to keep from sinking to the bottom and disturbing the reef. So essentially, we are trying to hover in place, which you wouldn't think would be a problem for a helicopter pilot. It took me a bit of time to master this task, but we all got better with buoyancy control as the days went by.

Early in the mission, as John Herrington and I were working on the pinnacle excursion line to the south of the habitat, we saw the most incredible sight, and my mind keeps replaying the spectacle. I suppose it is one of those things that I will remember for life. We saw two huge Manta Rays swimming loops next to each other on a feeding run. Boy, talk about feeling like a visitor! I'll never be the same after seeing that. They had a wingspan of 10-12 feet! I'll tell that story over and over, I'm sure. I'm sure it may be embellished with time, and that wingspan may increase over the months and years ahead, but I'll never forget what we saw.

Most every morning, our first task on the timeline is our morning daily planning conference with our topside support team. We review our schedule for the day and make sure that we're clear on procedures, data collection and objectives of each of our activities.

Probably the most challenging engineering task during our mission was 'Waterlab.' This was a truss structure out on the sand flat just to the east of the Aquarius habitat. Nick and Tara went outside for the first construction task. John and I tackled the second mission, and all four of us completed the final assembly. We had some challenging surprises along the way. We planned as much as we could, but never saw 'Waterlab' put together on dry land. Assembling a complex truss structure that we had never assembled before and in a hostile environment, we definitely had some challenges! It really is a confidence builder though, to be able to look out on the completed structure. The antenna and the solar array are about 20 feet off the ocean floor, and it is very easy now to determine the direction and strength of the current. The barracuda love the linear features on 'Waterlab.' They line up with the vertical segments of the truss in formation, facing into the current. It is quite a sight to see. They look so menacing but they are really quite shy and very curious. I haven't had a chance to witness them feeding yet, and I suppose that I might not want to hang around for that action. I have a very healthy respect for these guys, remembering that this is their home, and I am just a guest.

John and I spent quite a bit of time working on the 'Crossbow' and 'Versus' wireless tracking systems inside the habitat. These are devices that are used to track critical personnel and hardware in a closed environment, like the International Space Station, or in a building here on Earth. We are testing it down here in the habitat and hope to see something like this in use one day in space. Tracking of critical personnel and equipment can be an extremely valuable tool in places such as hospitals, and can help us manage contingency situations aboard the International Space Station.

We also finished three workout sessions using a resistive exercise machine that Tara brought down from the NASA Engineering Directorate. It is gravity independent and uses constant torque springs to deliver constant resistance through the full range of motion. We brought the exercise equipment into the habitat from the wet porch to get out of the humidity, but the CO2 levels spiked a bit, so at the request of the Aquarius techs here with us, we decided to move the equipment back to the wet porch. It's like weightlifting inside a sauna, but it's not a bad workout. We put the machine through its paces, and we hope to see results of our study enhancing crew countermeasures during space travel.

It is with mixed emotions that I prepare for my last night aboard Aquarius. She's a fine ship and a national treasure. We've left Aquarius in excellent condition and ready for all of you future aquanauts out there. Tomorrow morning we'll bid farewell to our home that served us so well. I leave forever changed. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have participated in such an exciting mission. I'll never look at the ocean quite the same way again. This is a wonderful planet that we share and I am excited to know that future explorers and inner space travelers will continue to fill Aquarius with tales from the deep, laughter, research, wonder, and a passion for discovery. Goodnight from Aquarius and the NEEMO 6 team.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 07/22/2004
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