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Crew Interviews
IMAGE: Douglas Wheelock
NEEMO 6 Mission Specialist Douglas Wheelock

Preflight Interview: Douglas Wheelock

The NEEMO 6 Crew Interview with Douglas Wheelock, mission specialist

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

NEEMO is the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations program. We'll actually be operating underneath the ocean in the Aquarius habitat that's off the coast of Florida. It's an analog to spaceflight on the Space Station in that we are together as a small group of folks, equivalent to what we'd have on the Space Station, and we're given the equipment that we have and the tasks that we need to do. And so resupply is very limited. And then through the use of just self-care, watching after each other, and use of teamwork, we're just trying to accomplish tasks similar to what we'd be assigned on the Space Station.

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

I'm an Army test pilot. As an aquanaut I didn't get to do much of that when I was active duty Army. I also am a test pilot and an engineer. So the things that we'll be doing on Aquarius or outside of Aquarius, in EVA-type activities outside of the habitat are actually analogous to what we'd do on a spacewalk. So I'm training right now to prepare myself to fly to the Station and perform EVAs, engineering tasks, science data collection, things like this.

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

NEEMO plays a part in the astronaut screening for spaceflight on the Space Station in that we go through a number of training events. This one is sort of the final training events to fly to the Station. That's where they put us in the extreme environment. I've done cold weather training and some outdoor leadership training and things like that. And for the last two years, I've been working in Mission Control. So now, I'm going to be able to see the other side of the picture as far as mission operations. I've been working in the Control Center for the Space Station, and now I'll be on the operator end and be able to work with the ground control team, and that'll round out my training as a potential flier on the International Space Station.

What will be your particular role in the NEEMO mission?

My primary role is I'm the Coral Science Lead. A lot of what we do is science data collection, and I'm also doing some studies for health monitoring. But, I'll be the lead for coral science in which we'll take coral fields and we'll do actual measurements and science for NOAA, who is our sponsor there on the habitat. And we'll be collecting that data and presenting it to the engineering team, where they can do comparisons from past studies.

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

I think it puts us in a very hostile environment. And, much unlike some of the training we have here at Johnson Space Center, (which is wonderful training and simulation exercises and things like that), but at the end of the day, in a simulation exercise, all the pieces go back in the box and everybody goes home. Whereas with NEEMO, it's more of an analog to actual spaceflight in that we're in this environment and we're there for a semi-long period of time. Not as long as what the stays would be on the Space Station, but with a compressed schedule and accomplishing tasks that no one person in themselves can accomplish. It'll force us to work together as a team to collect data with a very ambitious time schedule that will help in our leadership roles and in the basic subsystems of the mission.

What are the similarities between saturation diving and life undersea and living in space on board the International Space Station?

The similarities are that we'll be in a confined environment as a small team. We do have a Commander, John Herrington. We'll be working together as a team to collect our science data that we need to collect, and we're also living in a closed, confined environment where self-care, and care of your own teammates, is needed as it is on the Space Station. Another similarity that we have is we have excursions outside of the habitat that would be equivalent to an EVA or spacewalk on the Space Station to gather science data, and to conduct engineering tasks. We'll be constructing a truss-like segment on the floor just beside the habitat that will be analogous to an assembly task on the Space Station.

Do you think that the experience you gain during NEEMO 6 will help you better understand the challenges of living and working on the ISS?

Absolutely. I think it's a fairly ambitious time schedule that we're going to have. Now, the time is compressed into a very, very short ten days. It's actually seems long when you're first going down, but with all the tasks that we need to accomplish in that short period of time, we're going to have a compressed time schedule. We'll probably have competing tasks that we'll have to deal with, much like we'd have to deal with on the Space Station. And just the opportunity to work together as a team - a lot of the things that we're going to have to do, we're not going to be able to do in other than in two-, two-, three-, four-person teams. I think the analogy to the Space Station is very, very similar as far as small unit teamwork.

How does this type of training you've had for NEEMO differ from the other types of training you've had at JSC?

The biggest difference is probably the environment. We get into this type of environment as far as being in a sort of a time-compressed environment with a very ambitious schedule in simulation exercises and things here at Johnson Space Center and some other places where we do some of our training. The biggest difference is the environment that we're in. We're going to have to pull together as a team, to learn how to deal with a particular situation with the equipment that we have. It's going to require probably a bit of resourcefulness that we might not be able to exercise in a simulation exercise, which is probably the biggest difference. I think it will prepare us well for flight on Space Station.

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

We will be doing research. This is a heavy engineering mission, so we're doing a lot of construction-type tasks. We are doing coral science outside. We're also doing some health science monitoring. We have resistive exercise devices that we're actually taking a look at, and some of this will actually allow us to develop new pieces of equipment for the Space Station and help us to try out some of the things that we're going to be using on future Station flights. We have new fabrics that we're going to be testing out for anti-microbial properties. Also, we'll be constructing a truss-type segment on the floor of the ocean right beside the habitat that is analogous to a fairly complex, assembly task on the Space Station.

Can you explain how your excursion outside the Aquarius is similar to the spacewalks conducted by astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS?

We're in an extreme environment, much like you would be in the vacuum of space. Only here we're in a saturation-type dive where we can't surface because of the nitrogen in our system, and we need to control our buoyancy. It's a very, very complex operation as far as going out, including, just navigating under the water. Sometimes we have to get away from the excursion lines for science data collection and things like that. We also monitor our equipment, and must be able to understand where we are relating to pressures. We're also diving with a buddy. The analogy there is that we've used the same type of buddy checks that we would do on equipment that we have on a spacewalk.

What are you most looking forward to for NEEMO 6?

I guess professionally what I'm most looking forward to is being on the operator end of a real mission. I've been working for the last two years or so in Mission Control for the International Space Station crew, and, I feel like I've got a good handle on how the ground control team is organized and how they interface with the crew. And, it'll just be a great experience, I think, to be on the other end of that and just see how difficult it is, including some of the hurdles that we have in communication and things like that from the operator end. Personally, I don't have a lot of open water dive experience, so this will be sort of a first for me. I went through scuba training, open water training, just to support our NBL activities here at Johnson Space Center, but this is my first real open water experience. I'm just really looking forward to the environment and the confidence it will give me in taking care of my equipment, self-care and, and working together as a team in such an extreme environment.

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