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Interview: Marc Reagan

The NEEMO 6 Crew Interview with Marc Reagan, mission director

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

We saw a need to prepare our crewmembers for space that was outside of the training realm. We have great simulators; we have the ability to teach how systems work and how procedures can be followed, and how to interact with the control center. But, what we were missing was the mission analog environment, living in an extreme environment in close proximity to other people in isolation for extended periods of time and following a regimented timeline that's being re-planned day after day. All of those are aspects of the real mission that you don't get from simulations or from normal training. NEEMO was developed as a concept to fill the rest of that gap, to prepare crewmembers for their first space missions.

Can you describe the Aquarius environment that the crewmembers will be working in?

The Aquarius habitat is the only undersea research facility in operation in the world today. It is located just a few miles offshore near Key Largo, Florida. The sea floor there is 60 feet, and it's in a National Marine Sanctuary, and it's right on the edge of a reef, and there's a lot of reef life there to study. The hatch depth, which is the depth that controls the pressure inside, is about 47 feet. The module itself is about the dimensions of one of our modules on the International Space Station. It's about 45 feet long and about 13 feet in diameter, so it's a pretty tight environment for a crew of six to live in.

How and why were you selected for your involvement with the NEEMO project?

I was one of the people in the beginning that helped put this together as a viable project. I guess I self-selected by being aware that it was going on and volunteering early and helping put it together. We have a very small team of people that run this project - there are only four of us, and I was one of the original four.

What is your role in the NEEMO mission?

In this particular mission I'll be the Mission Director. I'm responsible for getting the mission put together beforehand, and I'll be responsible for executing all of NASA's objectives during the mission. It's a mission that's being operated in the end by the National Undersea Research Center that owns Aquarius. So, all issues related to safety, they have to answer to. The support of the facility, they answer to. But, as far as the objectives that we at NASA are trying to accomplish, all of those are within my purview.

Can you explain how you think that NEEMO is a valuable training tool for the ISS?

What NEEMO does is it gives crewmembers a chance to prepare for their role in upcoming ISS missions in a way that we can't accomplish with our normal training. It's primarily used by the Astronaut Office for rookie crewmembers who've never had a mission to experience their first mission, and make any rookie types of mistakes that they would make. It's also used as a commander upgrade program for the Astronaut Office, so people that have never been commanders of a space mission have the chance to go through this as the Commander of a NEEMO mission and get a chance to have people under their command and make first-time commander types of mistakes. That's probably the greatest value it has. The fact that it's an extreme environment, the fact that you have safety concerns that are always hanging over you because you could make mistakes that could injure or kill you, make it a valuable analog to spaceflight. You always have to be aware of those safety considerations in everything that you do. That's something we just can't simulate in a simulator here.

Can you explain some of the similarities between saturation diving in the undersea environment, and life in space onboard the ISS?

The biggest similarity is the fact that because you're saturation diving, it means that you cannot return to the surface. It takes about 17 hours to go through a full decompression to get back safely to the surface. On the International Space Station, for comparison, if we had to evacuate and get in a Soyuz craft and come back to the primary landing site in Kazakhstan, depending on where you are in the orbit, that could take as much as 18 hours. So in both cases, you're very isolated from the things you take for granted on this planet.

You served on the NEEMO 2 mission. Can you explain your role in that and as a former crewmember, how it will help you better understand the challenges of living and working on the Space Station?

I served on NEEMO 2 as an aquanaut. There were four of us from NASA and two from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington that were helping supervise that mission. That mission allowed me the opportunity to go through all aspects of a real mission from these types of interviews beforehand, to in-flight, public affairs, and educational events. We ate space food throughout the course of the mission. We worked with the Mission Control Center here in Houston. And, we had to, as a crew, figure out what kinds of shirts we were going to wear for photos and things like that. Every aspect of preparation for a mission as well as after the mission, for example, getting all the data to the right people from the experiments we did, getting thank-yous to the right people for the support they gave - all of that gave me a really much better appreciation for what a crewmember has to go through. The spaceflight itself is only a portion of what's consumed their lives for years, leading up to and even after the mission. I think that's helped me much better appreciate what International Space Station astronauts go through as well.

Can you explain how this type of training for NEEMO is different than other types of training at JSC?

I come from the Training Division. In fact, three of our four on our topside team that run these missions work in the Training Division here. So, a lot of the training we do for our aquanauts is very similar to what they see for Space Station. In the big picture, we have a lot of different things that you have to get training on: lots of different experiments the in-flight events that happen, the diving that's happening, and you're proxy scientists for different people. I think the greatest similarity is just the sheer number of widely varied things that you have to go and get training on. At the same time, there's a pretty big difference in the training we do for NEEMO and the training we do for Space Station. Our Space Station astronauts spend a very large amount of their time learning how the systems onboard work, learning how to be the primary responders if systems break down, and keep the Space Station operational and viable. That's not the case with NEEMO. We have two professional "habitat technicians" that are employees of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and they supervise the missions and the habitat. They are the professionals that make sure that the systems work, and our astronauts, or our aquanauts from NASA, don't get involved in that really, with the exception of the diving gear itself. There's a full week of aquanaut training that teaches you how to use the diving gear safely, because on the excursions they do, they are solely responsible for staying safe, and diving properly and using the equipment properly. That's very similar to astronaut training, but the habitat systems and life support, we don't train in, and that's a big difference that we have .

How is the research on NEEMO similar to the research that's being conducted on the ISS?

Throughout the course of the NEEMO project, we've done dozens of experiments that are similar or actually even on the International Space Station. We've experimented with portable ultrasound devices. We've done experiments where we took crewmembers' blood and looked for viral shedding. On this mission in particular, we have not so much experiments that are on the International Space Station as experiments that may someday be on the International Space Station. This is more of a technology demonstration for things that are out there in manned spaceflight in the future. But, things that are very similar to what we see on board the Space Station is the resistive exercise device, for instance. We have one that we think is an improvement over the one that's on orbit right now. Exercise is a very crucial component to the wellbeing of astronauts in space. We're testing a next-generation of hardware on this mission. We have a bone device that measures the strength of bones. With bone loss that we see in space, that's a very important thing to NASA and to our astronauts. Field testing that kind of technology in an operational environment could go a long way toward making it viable for future spaceflights.

You've been a Space Station training lead for years. Can you explain how that's helped you in designing and directing this mission?

I've had several crews that I've trained, both Space Station and Shuttle crews. I've been involved in training of multiple flight control teams for missions ranging from Shuttle to Station. So I've seen a wide variety of human spaceflight missions come together, and I think it's given me a perspective of the important elements that are involved in space missions, and making sure that we incorporate those same important elements in our NEEMO analog.

You've also spent some time this year as a CAPCOM in Mission Control. Do you think that will help you in your interactions with the NEEMO crew during this mission?

As a Space Station CAPCOM., I've been able to work with our Space Station crews going back to Increment 5, and I think that experience will lend itself to working with the NEEMO crew, especially in the sense that it helps make the analog more close. We do a lot of things by design the same way we do them on the Space Station - the way they start their day, and the way we tag up with the ground throughout the course of the day. Things like that we've tried to duplicate very closely to a Space Station environment.

How does your topside team support these missions?

Our topside team is composed of four people: Bill Todd, Michelle Lucas Monika Schultz and myself. We help put all these missions together every year, and we also go down to Key Largo and we support there. We have a condominium that the National Undersea Research Center lets us stay in that's right there at their base. We are involved from the aquanaut training through the debriefs at the end of the mission. We support with making sure the proper things get down to the crew on the days they need them - the different experiments may not all start the mission there, they may come down in stages. We support media events, and we re-plan the timeline every day.

Can you explain where your Mission Control team will be located in relation to the Aquarius module? What sort of controls and actual facilities will you have to communicate and work with them?

Our topside team is going to be in Key Largo, where we'll be living while the crew is in Aquarius. The base there is about 10 miles away by boat from the Aquarius habitat. We will be out there and diving nearby or at Aquarius almost every day of the mission in support of things they're doing. We'll be down there filming activities that they do for stock footage; we'll be making sure that things that they need get down there to them on time and get back up to the surface on time and we'll be tagging up by telephone twice a day in the same way that we tag up from the Mission Control Center here with the astronauts on the Space Station.

Can you explain the similarities or differences in the Mission Control environment from that of NEEMO, to that of the ISS?

I think the largest difference in the Mission Control environment between NEEMO and the Space Station is that there is not constantly a Mission Control team there for the NEEMO crew. Having said that, though, large parts of the day there is a control team there. We have a small group of people here at Johnson Space Center that are going to be the control team. They call themselves the Exploration Planning and Operations Center. Our aquanauts all have full communications masks on, and they can communicate with people here in Houston who are following them along as they do their dives on certain dives. All of us together are joined in, both morning and evening, for daily planning conferences to discuss how the day's events went and help re-plan together what needs to change for tomorrow. The people group constantly monitoring from a safety standpoint are the professionals at the National Undersea Research Center. They have a watch desk that's manned 24 hours a day. They are watching for Aquarius parameters -- for the pressure and the temperature and the CO2 levels and oxygen levels. And they have video cameras, instrumentation, and they're in constant contact with their hab techs there, just watching over the safety of the crew, watching over the dives, and making sure people are getting back on time. They're located in Key Largo as well, about 10 miles away from the habitat .

As the NASA Mission Director for this effort, what have your relationships with NASA's partners in NEEMO been like?

There are a lot of different partners that work here at NASA that are involved in each of these missions, but our external partners are basically two. First, we have researchers that are at different universities or different companies that are collaborating on the different experiments that we bring to these missions. Second, we also have people we work with from NURC, from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington employees. So, those are the two main external interfaces we work with, and our relationships with both have been very good. Unlike a spaceflight, NEEMO just doesn't have a lot of overhead to fly an experiment. You can get your experiment manifested on a mission pretty easily, and we will really work with you to make it happen and make it work. As long as it's suited to being underwater, we can get the kind of science you're looking for if it's a good fit.

Does the surface support team get as much good training and experience out of these NEEMO missions as the crews do?

Our surface support team has been together now for six missions, so I wouldn't say we're really getting training any more at this point. We've made our mistakes along the way, and we've kind of figured out what we need to do to make these missions successful. It's not really so much a training exercise for us as it is a real-time mission operation that we're conducting. They're very hectic and they're full of events going on all the time, and re-planning and, and unknowns and perturbations. But, it's not really so much training, it's just execution for us.

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 served with Mike on the NEEMO 2 mission that he commanded, and I had the honor of getting to know him better and becoming his friend. I was on console CAPCOM-ing soon after his mission began and got a phone call from Mike, calling from the ISS. He said, "You know, I can't tell you how much NEEMO did to prepare me for this mission. I may still make some mistakes on this mission, but I guarantee you I'll be doing better than I would have had I not had a chance to get a real mission under my belt first." Mike was an outstanding commander of our mission, he's done a fantastic job on his ISS mission, and he is really a quality human being on top of it all. I'm proud to call him my friend.

What are you most looking forward to for the upcoming mission?

I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to put another successful mission out there to take these different experiments that different researchers have given us and prove the success of them or prove the areas where we need to improve them before we use them for spaceflight. I think these missions are such good opportunities to test that kind of experiment out, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to do that and, and really make a positive contribution back to our International Space Station Program.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I would just like to thank our crew for all of the training they've gone through and are yet to go through, and thank the National Undersea Research Center and its staff for supporting these missions, and thank the NASA management here for all the support they've given us in allowing us to put these together and make them a success time and time again.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 07/08/2004
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