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IMAGE: Nicholas Patrick
NEEMO 6 Mission Specialist Nicholas Patrick

Interview: Nicholas Patrick

The NEEMO 6 Crew Interview with Nicholas Patrick, mission specialist

Can you please explain to us: What is NEEMO, and what does it have to do with the International Space Station.

NEEMO is NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations Program, and it is an analog to spaceflight on the International Space Station. It's both in an unforgiving remote environment, and it's in a confined environment, and that allows us to simulate operations on the Space Station quite closely.

Can you explain what your background is, and how does it qualify you to be an aquanaut.

Although I'm an astronaut, I think of myself first and foremost as an engineer. And this mission is an engineering mission, so I'm very excited about that aspect of it. I'm also a certified scuba diver and in fact, a rescue diver, which means in addition to open water training, I've received training in how to deal with underwater emergencies. I think that will help me prepare for what we hope will never happen underwater, but these things you need to be prepared to deal with should they arise.

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

I was selected from the Astronaut Corps as one of the astronaut participants in this NEEMO mission. Each NEEMO mission has several astronaut participants, and we're there to participate in the experiments and also, we're there for our own training, because this is such a good spaceflight analog. We don't get particular psychological screening for consideration for a NEEMO mission because we already get a lot of that when we're selected for the Astronaut Office. They've tried to do a good job of making sure that we are compatible with as many people as possible, and would be the kinds of people you'd want to be in a confined space with for a long time. It remains to be seen whether we're successful on this mission.

Can you give me a brief description of the Aquarius module and where it's located?

The Aquarius habitat is located in the Florida National Marine Sanctuary, a few miles off the coast of the Florida Keys. It's in about 60 feet of water, but the hatch depth, which is the all-important depth controlling the pressure inside the module, is at about 47 feet. The habitat itself is about 45 feet long, and it's a cylinder of about 13 feet in diameter. It's about the size of a school bus - quite a small space for six people to live in for 10 days.

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

I will be one of four NASA crewmembers and one of three astronauts, and all of us will be participating in all of the experiments: evaluation of silver ion-impregnated clothing, evaluation of the Constant Force Resistive Exercise Unit, and several external activities, EVA activities, that are analogs for spacewalks. I expect to be participating in all of those things. My background as an engineer I hope will make me very useful, particularly in the engineering evaluation of the devices we take down with us to Aquarius.

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

NEEMO's a fabulous training tool for ISS because it is the closet analog we have to the Space Station. It is located in a place that you can't come home from very easily. In Space Station, you can't come home because reentry is required. And in Aquarius you can't come home straightaway because decompression is required. It's a confined space in which you're living with several other crewmembers for an extended period, so it forces you to think of crewmembers in a way you don't normally think of your co-workers. You're going to have to live with them 24-hours-a-day in this confined space. Finally, it's a very unforgiving environment. While we've done everything we can to make it a safe environment, it is not the kind of environment that tolerates mistakes very well.

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

In space, you don't feel the effects of gravity - you're effectively weightless. Although we don't have a weightless condition inside the Aquarius habitat, we get that as soon as we go outside and we're neutrally buoyant, floating in the water, much the way we are here at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at JSC. Another similarity between the International Space Station and the Aquarius habitat is that because the environment is extremely unforgiving, many technical systems are required to support life: control of pressurized gases, control of temperature, electrical power systems, are all required. And, although we won't be the primary operators of these on Aquarius, we need to be familiar with them and particularly how to use them in an emergency. This again makes Aquarius a very good training tool for flight on the Space Station.

How does training for NEEMO and Aquarius differ from other types of training at Johnson Space Center?

The training from NEEMO is in fact quite similar to the training we get for spaceflight at JSC. The main similarities are concerned with the safety aspect of the training. We're primarily concerned, in both cases, with making sure the crew is safe and sound and bringing them home safely. We're also concerned with the achievement of mission goals, and we use a lot of checklists. We use a lot of backup systems, so that if the primary system fails we have a fallback. Some of the differences are: NEEMO training is a lot closer to home; the environment isn't quite as unusual as the space environment, and the mission is a little shorter so the training can be more compressed.

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

We will be conducting research on this NEEMO mission. We'll be looking into the utility of, for instance, silver ion shirts - the shirt that I'm wearing right now, the fabric that it's made of has been laced with silver ions to prevent microbial growth. If we can make this work on a ten-day NEEMO mission, then there's a good chance that it can be made to work or evaluated further on a Space Station mission. This would be wonderful, because it would allow us to reduce the amount of clothing that we have to manifest on the Space Station missions and so on. We will also be doing research into a new resistive exercise device, the, Constant Force Resistive Exercise Unit. Exercise during spaceflight is absolutely crucial to maintaining the health and wellbeing of the crewmembers. After six months in space, which is the length of the current Space Station increment, the crewmembers need to come back to Earth and be able to function autonomously straightaway in case they land in a place where there isn't immediate help. Without a really good regiment of exercise during their increment, they won't be able to do this. The more types of exercise devices we have and the more capable those devices are, the better prepared our crewmembers will be when they return.

The research on the NEEMO mission is similar to the research on ISS in that we only have one shot to take our hardware with us. You launch with your hardware to a space mission, and then you use that hardware. And if you break it, you have to fix it. Well, we are going to dive to Aquarius with our hardware for these experiments, and if we break them, we'll have to make do or fix them. There is one difference, which is that we get to take one of our engineers with us on an Aquarius mission, and we wouldn't normally get to do that for a spaceflight. That should be a great help should things not go as planned.

Will you be conducting any excursions outside the Aquarius laboratory? And, how are they similar to spacewalks conducted on the ISS?

We will be conducting several EVAs, or extravehicular activities, from Aquarius. These will be very similar to the EVAs that we conduct from ISS in the following ways: You have a very specific timeline to follow during an EVA from the Space Station, and we will do the same with our EVAs from Aquarius. The environment is very unforgiving, so you need to have backup systems, and you need to know how to use them. And although the systems will be different underwater from those that we have in space, the basic functioning is similar. One of the interesting things is that the training for spaceflight is conducted underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab here at JSC, so that an EVA from Aquarius will be very similar to a training run at JSC for an EVA during spaceflight.

What kinds of activities will you be conducting on your EVA?

During our EVAs from Aquarius, we'll be doing several things that have many similarities to EVAs from the Space Station. We will be conducting some coral science, measuring out a line through some coral and then examining the corals that we find along that line. We will be building a small underwater laboratory that would simulate the construction of a Space Station, perhaps adding a new module for Space Station. This will present us with several challenges, because it's very hard to work when you are neutrally buoyant or weightless in space, you need often a hand to keep yourself steady somewhere, and that leaves you only one hand to work with. And we will be doing a communications experiment in which we evaluate the capability of our underwater communication system as we talk back to our Mission Control here in Houston. So there are several things we're doing that make the EVAs from Aquarius very like EVAs from Space Station.

Mike Fincke, who is now Expedition 9 Flight Engineer and NASA ISS Science Officer onboard the International Space Station, had once been a NEEMO aquanaut. Can you describe his experiences as an aquanaut and how they might have contributed to his capabilities now onboard the International Space Station?

I know that Mike really enjoyed his experience on Aquarius and thought that it fitted in very well with his training flow. It was probably the first time in his training flow that he had had the opportunity to be confined with several other crewmembers and do realistic extravehicular activities and so on. Although I haven't spoken to him since he has been onboard the ISS, I know that the training he considered to be very valuable.

What are you most looking forward to?

There are two things I'm most looking forward to. The first obviously is the opportunity to spend some time at the bottom of the sea, on a reef, and to get to know the creatures that live down there fairly well - better than you can on a normal scuba dive for sure. And, the second thing is: I'm looking forward to working with my teammates and then making some new friends.

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