NEEMO 7 Crew Interview with Robert Thirsk, mission commander.
We are talking with Bob Thirsk of the NEEMO 7 crew. You’re
going to be participating in this mission coming up in October.
What in your background gives you the experience to be involved
in something like this?
have a strong background in mechanical engineering, but more particularly
related to this mission, medicine. I am a physician. I’ve
had the opportunity to participate on a Space Shuttle mission as
a payload specialist. A payload specialist is a person whose primary
responsibility on the flight is performing the actual research,
as opposed to operating spacecraft systems. The NEEMO 7 mission
has many objectives but probably the most important objective for
this mission is demonstrating medical technology and medical procedures
in harsh environment. So my background as a physician, my interest
as a physician, is to make sure that these research objectives and
medical technology are met.
we get into the actual heart of what you guys are going to be doing
on this mission, tell me more generally what NEEMO is, and how it
relates to the International Space Station?
NEEMO 7 is the name given
to a series of missions that NASA and its partners have conducted
in an undersea habitat called Aquarius. Aquarius is a bus-sized
underwater habitat off the coast of Florida, about 6 kilometers
off Key Largo. It’s about 50 to 60 feet under water, which
provides a wonderful opportunity to conduct research, but also for
astronauts who are perhaps designated for future Space Station missions,
to become acquainted with mission operations that are similar to
a Space Station expedition and also to see what their strengths
and their weaknesses are before actually being assigned to a Space
Station mission. So we could say that Aquarius and the NEEMO missions
are wonderful analogs of what to expect on a Space Station mission.
was the process for getting selected to be participating in this
NEEMO mission? What exactly were they looking for that they selected
you for this?
To be selected for a
NEEMO mission I think there are at least two things that need to
be met. No. 1, the individual aquanaut needs to have an interest
in this type of thing. In my case I’m very interested in undersea
research and new challenges, physical and mental challenges, which
an undersea living environment would certainly present. So the individual
astronaut or aquanaut needs to have an interest in the capabilities
for this type of environment. No. 2, I think there also are programmatic
selection criteria. The NEEMO mission in the Aquarius habitat is
a wonderful analog for a Space Station increment, and therefore
any individual who perhaps in the future could be assigned to a
Space Station mission, long duration mission from three months to
12 months in duration, really needs to get exposed to the harsh
living environment and the challenging operational environment of
an analog environment such as an undersea Aquarius habitat mission,
before actually being assigned a Space Station increment. It’s
a wonderful way for the individual and for the training program
to help the individual get ready for Space Station flight.
gone through a lot of probably interesting training here at JSC
and other places for this mission; how does it differ from your
normal training here at JSC?
Most of the training
that I have conducted so far in my, my career has been done at JSC,
the NASA human spaceflight center, or at the partner Space Station
facilities. A lot of those have been conducted in simulators and
in classrooms, and in robotic facilities. Training for NEEMO is
a little bit different in that we are actually out there in the
environment. We’re out there 60 feet down off the shore off
Florida, and working with other outside organizations that are not
normally associated with spaceflight. NOAA, the National Oceanographic
and Atmospheric Administration in the United States is responsible
for, for some of our training, the University of North Carolina,
McMaster University in Canada are also responsible for portions
of our, training as well. So it’s a little bit, the way that
training is conducted is a little bit different than what we’ve
been doing for actually Space Shuttle or Space Station training.
It’s exciting, new challenges, a great adventure.
NEEMO mission is going to focus on long-distance medicine, surgery.
Tell me more about the experiments that will be conducted during
There are several experiments
related to medical technology that will be performed on this flight
and also the usual coral science or undersea science research as,
as well. But absolutely the most important experiment on this flight
will be the telerobotic surgery that we’ll be looking at.
Telerobotic surgery on the surface, in a hospital setting, is very
new. So it’s extremely new to be trying to do this in a hostile
environment such as an undersea habitat. One of the great heritages
of the space program is that we’ve been able to develop, or
facilitate technology for space flight, that also has spinoffs to
terrestrial society. Telerobotic surgery is certainly an example
of that. No. 1, telerobotic surgery that we’ll be demonstrating
in the harsh undersea environment of Aquarius will provide benefits
to future space explorers. It is an exploration enabling technology
which will allow astronauts to go to a long duration mission such
as the first exploration mission to Mars. If an astronaut were to
develop a surgical complication; appendicitis or, a gall bladder
stone problem on the way to Mars, the only way to treat that right
now is with antibiotics. That is insufficient for a long duration
mission such as a Mars mission. Telerobotic surgery needs to be
developed to treat that type of a malady. No. 2, a lot of these
technologies that we’ll be developing on the NEEMO mission,
will have spinoffs immediately in medical care for people on Earth.
I’m Canadian. Part of Canada is very remote from tertiary
medical centers. Up in Baffin Island, up in the Northwest Territories
or in the Yukon, these people can benefit from telerobotic surgery
that if conducted from a primary care center in Montreal, Toronto,
Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg … So the technology we’ll
be demonstrating on the Aquarius mission will have near term benefits
to terrestrial society in the Canadian far North.
lot of international cooperation going on in this particular mission.
Tell me about the importance of that, and how that also relates
to the work that goes onboard the International Space Station.
I believe that
one of the main benefits of the Space Station program is not just
the ground-breaking medical science and material science research
that we’ll be doing, but also the diplomatic or the international
cooperation, ties that we’ll be integrating amongst all the
various partner countries. In this world unfortunately today there
are a lot of reasons to cause countries to separate and to go their
own ways, but space is one where we can bring countries together.
So I’m very proud that Canada is a very strong partner in
the NEEMO 7 mission along with NASA and some of the American medical
institutions here. This is allowing us to pool resources, pool expertise
to meet the needs of not only Canadians but Americans and other
societies as well. One of the strongest points of the space program
today is international cooperation.
strong point is pushing the edge of technology. What kind of role
do missions like this play in, in pushing the edge of technology
and making us learn new things?
One of the exciting things
for this mission is getting exposure to some of these new technologies.
For example, telerobotic surgery, which we’ve already talked,
about is brand new technology; and I’ll have the opportunity
as a, as an aquanaut to be able to operate this equipment and become
familiar with up-to-date procedures to perform telerobotic surgery.
This will benefit me, it will also benefit the surgeons to see how
they can implement new technology to enable minimally trained people,
astronauts, aquanauts, to credibly perform, medical procedures.
Also for the undersea research portion of the mission we’ll
be using some very brand new scuba equipment, for example if you’re
a scuba diver you know that the typical hardware we use involves
a scuba mask and a separate regulator. Well, we’re going to
be using full face masks which include communication systems inside
the mask which allows us to communicate, very clear, clarity to
people back on the surface or even thousands of miles away in an
institution. This is brand new technology for me. We’re also
going to be using some of the equipment that deep sea divers use.
Divers that go down to 2,000 feet under the ocean. A hard shell
type of helmet which allows us complete mobility of our head and
excellent ability to communicate and more credibly perform the research
that we’ll be doing. Not 2,000 feet, but 60 feet to 90 feet,
under the water as well. The Aquarius habitat is a tough habitat
or tough environment to operate in. We have high humidity; the air
conditioning is not optimal; the communication and power lines are
not as optimal as what they would be in a tertiary hospital setting.
So to demonstrate this cutting edge technology in a hostile environment
is a very useful objective of this mission.
are you most looking forward to in this mission?
I think one of the advantages
of this mission is that we are going to get the message out that
space technology and space endeavors benefit society on Earth. And
I want to be a part of getting that message out. So that’s
probably going to be one of my key roles during the actual mission.
If we were suddenly to remove space technology from everyday life,
I think people would be surprised how limited they are. Communication
technology, remote sensing technology, search and rescue capability
which touches the lives of thousands of people everyday. Saving
lives of people in stranded boats and downed aircraft; the ability
to monitor our agricultural crops; to monitor weather and to report
the weather forecast to people everyday -- It’s all based
on space technology and I think that people don’t realize
that. The other key area is medical technology as, as well. If suddenly
we were to go through all the hospitals of the world, or the doctors
offices of the world and remove every bit of technology there, or
capability that derived from the space program; the public and the
medical system would be very limited. On the NEEMO 7 mission we’re
going to be developing a brand new technology, telerobotic surgery;
which is not in place in all the hospitals today, but in the next
5, 10, 15 years it will be. It will be a key technology, and I want
to wave the flag that, ‘Hey, the space program is helping
to develop this technology.’ It does make a difference in
people’s lives here on Earth.