7 Mission Commander Robert Thirsk (at right) and Mission
Specialist Mike Barratt.
7, Robert Thirsk
Day 5, Friday, October 15, 2004
is difficult to single out just one event to highlight in my daily journal. Each
day I do many things aboard Aquarius that I have not previously experienced in
my professional career. Today was no exception. I could write about our Waterlab
construction project or I could write about the medical science that we have been
performing inside the habitat.
instead I will write about a visitor to Aquarius. Our visitor's name is "Inuktun"
and it is a VGTV or 'Variable Geometry Tracked Vehicle.' In other words, it is
a small robot. Inuktun looks a bit like Star Wars' R2D2 but with its own treaded
track and a capability to change shape to facilitate movement around obstacles.
Inuktun has many uses including surveillance and pipeline inspections. It also
helped in the search and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site following
the 11 September attack. And Inuktun is waterproof which means that it can work
on the ocean floor. The Inuktun system was 'potted' down to Aquarius early today.
The entire system consists of the robot as well as a control unit, laptop computer
and long umbilical.
mid-afternoon, Whitney Howell, an engineer with American Standard Robotics, dove
down to Aquarius to brief us on the operation of the robot. To avoid the perils
of decompression sickness (a.k.a. "the bends"), Whitney could stay only one hour
aboard Aquarius. In that time she needed to power up and check out the robot,
and then train us on its operation.
to Whitney's arrival, we had connected up the rover system to Aquarius' power
and data lines. Once onboard, Whitney activated the system. The power LED lit
up as expected but so did every other LED on the control panel. In fact, they
were all madly flashing like a 1970s discotheque! Houston, we had a problem!
rover operations were threatened, and we only had minutes left to debug this problem
before Whitney had to leave for the surface. James Talacek, our NURC crewmate,
quickly noted that the push buttons on the rover control panel were of the flush
memory type. Each control button was a small, pressure-sensitive, sealed button
(similar to keypads on some camcorders or calculators). The increased ambient
pressure in Aquarius (two-and-a-half times that on the surface) had flattened
several of the control buttons so that they were sending a continuous 'close'
status to the robot electronics. The robot was confused and indicated so with
its flashing control lights.
we yelled. "Bring a suture and come here quick!" When Dr. Craig, our crewmate
and skilled surgeon, arrived on the scene, we had him puncture tiny holes in the
overlying membrane of the compressed buttons with a needle to allow in ambient
air and return them to their nominal 'open' state. That did the trick! We power-cycled
the control box and were back in business. Whitney gave us a crash course on operating
the Inuktun rover and then returned to the surface.
Inuktun is Canadian technology, the NEEMO 7 team allowed me to control the rover
first. I sent Inuktun out to explore the sandpatch and reef around Aquarius. What
also reminds me of the two NASA/JPL robots currently exploring the Martian surface.
Spirit and Opportunity have captured the attention of international scientists
and the worldwide public with their startling images of the Martian landscape
and evidence that water may have once existed there. Undersea robots are doing
the same to explore the ocean floor and expand our understanding of the undersea
robots and humans have roles to play in the exploration and development of space
and the undersea world. I like to think that the capabilities of robots and humans
complement each other in space and other frontiers. For instance, robots can reliably
perform repetitive, programmed duties in extreme environments. Human explorers,
on the other hand, are adept at using ingenuity to solve unexpected problems.
I was quite proud that, working together, the NEEMO 7 crew diagnosed the problem
with Inuktun's confused control panel this afternoon and quickly implemented a
solution that rescued the robot's mission.
is still with us. If we can find time in our schedule tomorrow, we will get one
more chance to practice our robotic skills. My top priority now, however, is to
get to bed. We must rise at 5 AM to prepare for a pre-sunrise scuba dive into
the reef ... one more new experience for me.