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IMAGE: James Kelly
NEEMO 6 Mission Commander John Herrington

Interview: John Herrington

The NEEMO 6 Crew Interview with John Herrington, commander

Can you tell us what NEEMO is, and what does it have to do with the International Space Station.

NEEMO is NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations Project. And, it's really an analog to spaceflight. You take a crew of folks, you put them in an isolated environment, an extreme environment (in this case, underwater; about 50 feet), and we do a variety of things. Engineering studies, we do some EVAs outside. It really is an analog to what we do in space.

What is your background, and how does it qualify you to be an aquanaut.

My background is I'm a Naval aviator. I've been in the Navy 20 years. I've been at NASA for eight years. I had the opportunity about two years ago to fly on board the Space Shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station for just about seven days. My experience in flight allows me to experience this mission as being a Commander for NEEMO-6.

Could you explain what your role was on the mission that you flew on STS-113?

On STS-113, I was considered the Mission Specialist-2, like a Flight Engineer. My primary mission on that flight was to perform three spacewalks, or three EVAs, in support of the installation of the P1 truss. So, I had a good chance to get outside and do some spacewalks.

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

Everything we do, in terms of getting assigned to any mission, be it into NEEMO or into some of the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) missions we do or the Cold Lake Experiment experience in the North, is really in performance of your job. They're looking at you for your performance in a group of people in a stressful environment. So, I think my experience in flight on the Endeavour put me in a position to command this mission, but also to be able to take what I learned there and share it with other folks. In terms of psychological testing? I think it comes as part of what we're doing. You know, how do you work, do you work well with other people? I think it's very important.

Did you have any particular dive certification training?

Everybody (astronauts), when they first get to NASA, does dive certification. Some of us have our open water certificates before we get here, as part of what we do in our training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. We're all certified divers. Down there, we get much more training because NEEMO's a much more extreme environment. So, the folks that run the facility have quite a few requirements that we have to complete before we're allowed actually to get in the facility.

What will be your role in the NEEMO mission?

I'm commander for NEEMO 6. I'll be leading two other astronauts as well as an engineer. Then there are two hab technicians that work for the facility, and we'll all be together in the habitat for about 10 days.

Why do you believe NEEMO is a valuable training tool for the International Space Station?

That's a very good question. In terms of being a training tool, there are so many things, that I believe are going to directly translate to flying in space. You've got a timeline you have to work, and it's compressed. With a compressed timeline there's a lot of stuff to do. You're stressed. You're confined. You're eating, well, not the same food, but you're eating food that you're really not used to, and working with others in trying to accomplish a mission. So, I think that directly plays over to what we do on the Shuttle as well as what we'll do on the Space Station.

Can you explain some of the similarities between saturation diving and life undersea, and living in space on board the International Space Station?

That's a good question. Saturation diving is that we get down under water and we're at depth. And in this case, NEEMO's about 50 feet under water. So, we will have, for a period of time, a huge amount of nitrogen in our bloodstream. If we have to surface during this 10-day period, we'll actually have the possibility of the nitrogen coming out of solution and getting the bends. So the intent is that anything you deal with underwater, if you run out of air, something like that, you have to stay down underwater because that's the safest place for you. So, this is a direct analog to doing an EVA, being outside in what's a very hostile environment.

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

I think the fact that I've flown into the Space Station and I've flown in the Shuttle, I can take the experiences I've had there and directly relate it to what I'm doing underwater. I'm hoping that I'll be able to impart some level of knowledge to the folks I'm diving with that, "Hey, this is really similar to spaceflight. And, these are the things that you'll see." You know, that the timeline is compressed. And, you're going to be trying to get your work done. And, that is directly relatable to flying in space. So, I'm hoping that those two things will come together and will be productive really satisfying for me to share that.

How does the type of training for NEEMO differ from other types of training offered here at JSC?

With NEEMO being an extreme environment, you just can't find that around here. In terms of being an analog to spaceflight, it's a way we can do it inexpensively and give people a similar experience. There are a lot of other things we do. We have leadership training, and a follower-ship training to go, where we go backpacking for a couple of weeks with a group of people and seeing how the group dynamic works. We also go into a cold environment, into Northern Canada and see how we get together and how we work a timeline and how you do things in an extremely cold, once again hostile environment. This takes it a step further. This is at the end of that training where we take the other experiences we've had, and every one of us has done that, in the Astronaut Corps, that are on this dive, and we'll put it all together. I mean, how close is this to a space mission? How close is this to actually seeing what we'll have in flight? I think there are going to be very, very close parallels.

Will you be conducting any research during your NEEMO mission? And, how is that research similar to the research being conducted on the ISS.

There's a lot of research we'll do, engineering research, particularly. One example is a fabric we'll be wearing. We have some shirts that we'll be wearing that have silver laced into the fabric, and, silver's known to be an anti-microbial - you can help reduce the amount of bacteria. Wearing these shirts and having these sheets, we're going to measure the amount of microbial growth in the habitat and compare it to when we didn't have that. The idea being that you could possibly, in flight, not fly the anti-bacterial ointments, things like that and utilize just standard fabrics or a modified fabric. Wireless networks we're also going to be working on. There also are some resistive exercise devices we're going to work on. Those are things inside the habitat. Outside the habitat for EVAs, we'll be building a structure out of PVC, pretty much a truss-like structure. How do we develop a timeline? How do we work together as a group to accomplish this with certain constraints? And, with that, we're doing some educational outreach, where we have students doing the exact same thing. Not underwater or anything with scuba. But they're building structures, in a group, putting them all together, and seeing how they work as a team. So we'll have a chance, during the mission, to talk to kids at schools and say, you know, "Here's how we did it. How did you do it? And, what were the things that made it difficult for you? Or the things that worked well?"

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

I think with the exception of one day, we'll be doing a lot of excursions outside the habitat. A good portion of this is the EVA, the spacewalk analog, and we'll do it in pairs. Occasionally, with my dive buddy, Doug Wheelock, we'll go out and we'll do certain things. We're checking a comm. system that we're wearing - it's built into the mask. We're actually looking at coral science. We're going to be looking at the coral and trying to map some of the coral that's dying or some of it that's alive and provide that back to scientists. We're also going to be building a structure that I spoke about. There are a lot of things we're going to do, and we'll do it both in groups of two or in groups of four. And once again, it's a direct analog to doing an EVA in space.

What are you most looking forward to on NEEMO 6?

It's a really, really neat environment, and, we've been down to the habitat; we've been inside. There are huge glass windows that you can look out, and you can see. This is not like spaceflight because you look out the window and see something swim by you. And, it is really a remarkable environment. You know, there are stingrays, there's skates, there's barracuda - all sorts of fish are around the habitat. And, to be able to be in that and to go out and scuba around and to see that and to interact with that is going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to be underwater for a period of time and be in an environment that I haven't been in before for a period of time.

Is there anything else regarding NEEMO 6 you'd like to add?

I just hope that during the mission that we get a chance to interact with a lot of students. We're interacting with some teachers. You get a chance to bring them on board and say, "Hey, this is what we're doing in kind of a timed community." And say, "This is what we're doing, here's why we're doing it, and how does that impact you? And what does it mean to you?" So, we'll have a chance to work with some teachers and students and get them excited, because that's part of what NASA's mission is to do, is to inspire the next generation. And, what better way to do that than using teachers and talking to students? So, it's going to be good.

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