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NEEMO 7
IMAGE: NEEMO 7  Mission Commander Robert Thirsk

NEEMO 7 Mission Commander Robert Thirsk (at right) and Mission Specialist Mike Barratt.

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*NEEMO 7 Journals
*Aquanaut Profile: Robert Thirsk

NEEMO 7 Journals

NEEMO 7, Robert Thirsk
Day 5, Friday, October 15, 2004

It 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.

But 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.

In 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.

Prior 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!

Robotic 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.

"Craig!" 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.

Since 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 a thrill!

Inuktun 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 frontier.

Both 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.

Inuktun 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.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 10/23/2004
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