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IMAGE: Tara Ruttley
NEEMO 6 Mission Specialist Tara Ruttley

Interview: Tara Ruttley

The NEEMO 6 Crew Interview with Tara Ruttley, mission specialist

What is NEEMO, and what does it have to do with the International Space Station?

NEEMO is NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations Program. It's a program that is run by NOAA and NASA's participating in this as a space analog type of mission. The Aquarius is the habitat that we'll be staying in, and that's located a few miles off the coast of Florida. We'll be living in saturation. The similarities to International Space Station include things such as living in an extreme environment, where you don't see friends and family. You may have different behavioral issues. You may see different science research objectives that you can perform down there. And, you also have this situation where if you're living in saturation and you're diving, it's just like at the International Space Station in that you can't just step outside and come home. There are physiological consequences associated with that.

What is your background? And, how does it qualify you to be an aquanaut?

I am engineer at NASA. I work in the Biomedical Systems Division where I'm the lead for all the health and medical equipment that's up on International Space Station right now. I'm qualified to be an aquanaut in terms of my dive certification background. I'm an advanced open water rescue diver, and you have to have so many missions or so many dives under your belt to become an aquanaut. I'm qualified to do the research that we're doing because it's all biomedical hardware, it's all advanced equipment that we'll look into to potentially use on the International Space Station someday.

How and why were you selected for the NEEMO project? And, did you have to go through any psychological screening processes?

I was selected for the NEEMO project, self-appointed. I don't know how else to put it. From an engineering perspective, I had noticed that the past missions have always been life sciences related. Once I got to figuring that they're getting experiments done down there, I kind of started wondering how engineering could participate in something like this. I think it's of high value to engineering. So I sought the permission from my Engineering Directorate to go out and perform the experiments, and that's just how I ended up as an aquanaut on the mission.

Do you think you have something to offer that hasn't necessarily been covered on previous NEEMO expeditions?

Yeah, absolutely. I come from the Biomedical Systems Division that looks at countermeasures for exercise such as bone and muscle health maintenance equipment, and also environmental monitoring equipment. And, those are all the type of experiments that we'll be performing.

What will be your particular role in the NEEMO 6 mission?

I will be the Lead Hardware Engineer in terms of evaluating the experiments that we'll be taking down. I will be performing hardware evaluations. We're looking at usability and performance of the hardware in a metal wall environment, a closed environment for space analog, and leading up all the seven different experiments that we'll be doing.

Why do you believe that NEEMO is a valuable training tool for the ISS?

I believe NEEMO is a valuable training tool for the ISS because it offers a closed environment for an extreme environment. You can't just come home. You can't just go out of the hatch and come to the surface if you missed your friends and family. You focus on the research. You focus on the mission. You focus on safety. And, those are the primary things that you do on International Space Station.

Do you think that your NEEMO experience will help you better understand the challenges of living and working on the Space Station?

I believe my NEEMO experience will give me an idea of the challenges that the astronauts face living on International Space Station in terms of working as a team, meeting unexpected challenges that may arise, looking at behavioral issues, maybe malfunction of hardware -- hardware that we as engineers have problems with on the ground and as they get up on orbit. It's the unexpected things, I think, and then the closeness of it that I think will contribute to the analog of Space Station.

Can you explain how training for the NEEMO mission compares or differs from other types of training at JSC?

Similarities between NEEMO hardware training and training the crew for the NEEMO hardware, versus training the crew for the International Space Station, there are similarities in that for the NEEMO mission, as engineers, we're required to prepare appropriate procedures for the crew. We're required to spend quality time with the crew to ensure that they understand how the hardware functions, how the hardware operates in a safe environment in a safe way, and you get all that. It's the same thing for International Space Station. I think with NEEMO we're allotted a little bit more one-on-one time with the crew. I have a lot more closeness with the crew, and you wouldn't just get that with regular International Space Station training.

Will you be conducting any research during your NEEMO mission? And, how is it similar to the research being conducted on the International Space Station?

The research that we'll be doing on NEEMO is similar to that which is being done on the International Space Station in a way by which it's a usability thing, I think. Space Station hardware has already been evaluated fully, I think, in terms of research. More of the research that happens on International Space Station is based on outcome of results - hard-core data that you can obtain, mostly physiological or environmental. For NEEMO, we are actually doing something a little different in that we're reevaluating hardware in a usability and a performance fashion, not quite getting the science data you would expect with the physiological or environmental. Instead we're looking at things that with NEEMO, in how they could apply to Space Station. It's a hard parallel to distinguish the two or actually to parallel the two. But, we're looking at hardware that could be used on International Space Station. We're using NEEMO as a platform for which to test potential future hardware that would be used on the International Space Station.

Will you be conducting any excursions outside the Aquarius undersea laboratory? And how are they similar to the spacewalks conducted by astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS?

We will be performing several excursions outside of the habitat, or EVA spacewalk analogs underwater. And these are similar to the International Space Station or spacewalks from Shuttle in that you have special gear that you're required to train to use appropriately. You're trained for safety and how to use that gear. You're trained in how to communicate with each other when you're in that environment and with your home base, which would be the habitat or the International Space Station.

This is going to be the first NEEMO mission dedicated to engineering research. What kind of systems will you be testing while you're down there?

The type of systems that we'll be testing when we're on the NEEMO mission includes things such as exercise countermeasures, environmental health systems, and health maintenance systems. Those are the core of what we do in the Biomedical Systems Division, is we maintain crew health; for example, we're looking at some silver ion technology on NEEMO in its closed environment. Silver ions are woven into the shirts and the blankets and the towels that the crew will be using, and I'll be, at different points along the mission, sampling for control of microbes. It's an anti-bacterial, is what the silver is for. That's a potential thing that we could use on the International Space Station. Another example is an exercise machine. We've got a space analog mission going on NEEMO, then we should have a space analog exercise machine. It's a resistive exercise machine that doesn't require the use of gravity. And, it's something new that we haven't used before, and we'll get the crew's feedback on that as well. We have a series of wireless monitoring systems, where we can monitor the environment wirelessly and look at things such as temperature changes and light changes at different points in the habitat.

How does the new exercise machine work, and how does it differ from the exercise device that's currently on the ISS.

The exercise machine that we'll be testing at NEEMO is called the Constant Force Resistive Exercise Unit (CFREU for short). Its purpose is to provide a constant force when you're exercising in the positive and negative stroke through an entire range of motions. It's different than something such as a rubber band or a regular spring. The current machine that's on orbit uses rubber band or a rubber system, and it maintains a nearly constant force. But, it's not quite exact, and you lose some resistance during the exercise. Our challenge as engineers is to come up with the perfect exercise machine. And, although this one that we're looking at now may or may not get to the International Space Station, it's a good design challenge for us to think about things like that, to consider the human-in-the-loop, so to speak.

How might the systems that you'll be testing be applied to the International Space Station and the new exploration vision?

The systems that we're testing could be applied to the International Space Station and our new exploration vision, in terms of looking at autonomous medical capabilities, and looking at improved exercise countermeasures, and looking at improved environmental monitoring. The Aquarius habitat offers us the closest thing there is to the International Space Station to test our equipment. Engineering sees this as the best opportunity to evaluate as much as we can in the 10 days that we're down there.

Do you foresee any special challenges as the lone female on this NEEMO crew?

I foresee a couple of special challenges in being the only female on the NEEMO crew. There's always the aspect of personal space that you know you don't share with the male all the time in a closed environment as this, or such a close environment as this. But I've had time to spend with my crewmembers, and I don't feel concerned to be the only female there. I'm perfectly fine with it and I'm not concerned. I don't know all the challenges quite yet, and I guess I'll learn when I'm there.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

I would just like to thank my Engineering Directorate and my management over in the Biomedical Systems Division. These guys are outstanding! And the people who have worked behind the scenes to make all of these experiments come together have worked day and night for months. It's been the best reward just this past week finally getting to train the crew on this stuff, and watching how they react. It's going to be even more fun to watch how they react underwater. I just want to say "Thank you" to everybody who's participated in and who is giving us the opportunity to go down there.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 08/09/2004
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