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NEEMO 7: Home | Journals
Crew Interviews
IMAGE: Mike Barratt
NEEMO 7 Mission Specialist Mike Barratt

Interview: Mike Barratt

The NEEMO 7 Crew Interview with Mike Barratt, mission specialist.

Q: We are talking with Mike Barratt of the NEEMO 7 crew. You're going to be participating in the last NEEMO mission ... of this year, coming up in October. What is, what is your background, and how does it qualify you to be an aquanaut?

A: My background is actually zoology from the University of Washington with a marine emphasis. And for the longest time, I actually wanted to be a marine biologist and live in an underwater habitat. I didn't think I would have to join the space program to do that, but here we are. From there, I actually went to medical school and went on to do further training in internal medicine and aerospace medicine and actually spent nearly 10 years here at Johnson Space Center as a flight surgeon. So I have a medical and an operational bent before coming into the Astronaut Corps, which I think has, has served me relatively well. Going to an underwater habitat, which is a tremendous analog of spaceflight, I think really fits quite well with that.

You'll be participating in the last NEEMO mission of this year, coming up here pretty soon. Tell me about your background and how it qualifies you for this job.

My personal background is, that I majored in zoology, as an undergraduate at the great University of Washington in Seattle. I did that with a bit of a marine emphasis, and for a long time had actually wanted to be a marine biologist. And, living in an underwater habitat, that was one of my childhood dreams. And now I'm realizing I had to join the space program to do that! But I'm really thrilled about the opportunity. From there I went on to study medicine and to take advanced training in internal medicine and space medicine. I actually came to the Johnson Space Center and spent nearly 10 years as an operational flight surgeon here before coming to the Astronaut Corps. So, I think all of that together really prepares me fairly well for an analog to spaceflight and, and living underwater.

So, what exactly is NEEMO? And, how does it relate to the International Space Station?

Well, NEEMO stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. We make use of the Aquarius habitat, which is an undersea laboratory off of the Florida Keys. It does many things for us. It gives us a training venue, which is very, very similar to the spaceflight experience, being that it's fairly small and enclosed and isolated, and surrounded by a tremendous amount of natural beauty that requires a lot of further study. And many of the aspects of making a successful NEEMO mission are exactly the same as making a successful ISS mission. You have a timeline that you have to keep to. You have to worry quite a bit about self-care and team care. You have a fairly complex payload scenario that you need to run through and make sure that you deliver good science for the customers and all those who have a vested interest. And even venturing outside, just like on ISS, is, is quite a big deal. You have to get dressed up special to go out and the view is quite spectacular. You really pay fairly close attention,.from safety aspects to your equipment and your timelines again. So, it's, it's an extremely [good] analog for spaceflight in that regard.

How were you selected to participate in the NEEMO project? How did that come about?

Well, I think a tremendous amount of luck. Again, for me this is a great thrill to be able to do. We are trying to provide Expeditionary training for all those who are headed to the International Space Station, something that will give you that remote field experience, that will prepare you better to go camping in space for six months that also includes a technical venue. We have several other things that we do. We do National Outdoor Leadership School trips, backpacking and sea-kayaking. We also do cold-weather training in Canada, where you're pulling a toboggan around at minus 30 or so for a few days and living in a tent together. And, as in tiered process, this becomes rather the third tier of that series of expeditionary experiences. So I've done those first two; and, hopefully, this will be the final part of that Expeditionary training for me. But, having said that, the payloads, the mission that we're looking at here on NEEMO 7 is very much medically oriented. For me and my formal life, working with the medical operations aspect of Space Station and choosing and proving medical technologies for use in space, it's very, very similar to that; and I think that background is also what helped me to get included on to this mission.

You'll be bringing that background to a lot of your work in this mission, as you mentioned. What exactly will your role be during the NEEMO mission?

We all have generic, mission-support roles, if you will; all of us will be involved in most of the experiments either as subjects or operators. But, having said that, we, we all have special duties assigned to us. I will serve as one of the two crew medical officers if something actually does go wrong with one of us, to render first aid. I'll also be in charge of the communications experiments that we do, the robotics experiments that we, we also perform. The EX-14, which is an advanced, Navy dive suit, I'll be the lead technical person on that as well. And, probably a few others. We have another crew meeting today and we all might get a few more assignments as well!

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

Oh, well, I think, as mentioned, it's a, it's a tremendous analog of, of the isolated, small, enclosed space where getting along with your crewmates and performing the mission and the science and the technical requirements all are combined together. It also combines something unique that you can't get in just a, a capsule or another training venue. And, that is that there really is science that needs to be done. This is a living reef that's being studied for years, and some of the observations we make will actually add to the science base. They are very similar to spaceflight. I think perhaps the other thing, which I haven't mentioned, is that you are separated from the normal world by a barrier. In spaceflight, you've got a speed barrier. You have to slow down from orbital velocity to about zero to, to get home. In the NEEMO habitat, we're essentially involved with a pressure barrier, where you have to undergo a, a long period of decompression and desaturation to rid your body of the excess nitrogen that you've had in saturation before you can come home. So, there's no quick or ready evacuation. You truly are isolated.

What are the similarities between saturation diving and life undersea and living on board the International Space Station and going out on spacewalks?

Well, maybe one way to frame that is that, in space, you have a pervasive condition, which is zero gravity. That affects many, many things: how your body works, how your body functions, how your machinery works; it's, it's just pervasive. It really makes a difference in how you design your equipment and how your equipment performs. In saturation diving, you have a similar condition. The background, though, is high pressure rather than zero gravity. But it also affects how your body works and how you might respond to certain medical events. It definitely affects how your equipment works and performs. It's something, again, that you have to get around before you can come home. So, it's just a totally different force; but there is a pervasive force or, or condition, that you have to work around. So, it's very similar. Like EVA in space, going outside in saturation, you have to be extremely careful in choosing your equipment and proofing your equipment and making sure that everything is going to work 100 percent. There are real safety aspects to it. You have to be extremely careful not to bust depth limits. In this case, the surface is our enemy because we are at saturation; and if you raise too quickly, you actually face decompression sickness or "the bends." So keeping into your depth profile is extremely important. You're always watching your conditions, your timeline, and, of course, the task that you have to do. But, again, I think, the view is just impossibly beautiful! Instead of looking down at the Earth, you're looking at a very alive reef with a tremendous amount of diversity and color and, and life. To me there's a great similarity.

Will you be conducting excursions outside the lab? Are you going to be going out there?

We'll conduct a few excursions outside the lab. We have a couple of specific items on our agenda there. One of those is coral science, as I mentioned, where we'll actually be conducting transects to look at different coral types at certain sections of the reef. We'll also be participating in an exercise called "Water Lab," which is the construction of a mock facility. It involves teamwork and planning and timing, and a lot of things that would be similar to putting a structure together during an EVA up in the International Space Station. We'll probably spend three to four dives just putting that together with various combinations and numbers of divers. So, those are our, our two big excursions. Beyond that, we'll be doing some training dives, which involve nighttime dives and dawn dives. I'm really looking forward to those!

How does this type of training that you're going through right now differ from other types of training here at the Johnson Space Center?

The biggest difference is just the venue; the "where we are." Number 1, we're, we're isolated; and number 2, there really are safety implications of, of breaking that isolation and stepping out of the bounds of how you operate this habitat. So it's, it's very different. The other thing is, I think it's as close to an actual mission as you can get in that you have to plan everything months in advance. You have to focus in on a timeline. You have to train heavily in many diverse aspects, aside from just your payloads, the photo/TV, the Navy EX-14 suit, for instance. And then, of course, all the nuances of how these things are going to perform, once you get them down there at pressure and the high humidity conditions that we face. As always, keeping the network going, the conductivity that we depend on to make these telerobotic and telemedical experiments a success, will require constant tending. So, I think the main difference is that it, it's such an analog; it's, it's such a true reflection of actual spaceflight.

You mentioned the telerobotic experiments. This NEEMO mission is going to focus on long-distance medicine and surgery. What are some of the experiments that you'll be conducting in these areas?

We'll be doing these jointly with the Canadian Centre for Minimal Access Surgery up at McMaster's University, where Dr. Mehran Anvari heads this organization and will be teleoperating, actually, some of these experiments that we'll be tending. This is a very cutting-edge set of experiments that we're doing, in that Dr. Anvari, I think, leads the world in the actual number of real telerobotic surgeries done. And so we're very fortunate to have him at the other end of this and involved in this mission. What we'll be doing is test-bedding some of the technologies and techniques that Dr. Anvari and his group have been developing over these past few years. We're doing it in a very spaceflight-like fashion in that the conductivity really depends on several different links, all functioning perfectly. Dr. Anvari will be in Hamilton, Ontario; and we'll be down in the Florida Keys, which is going to require satellite links and fiber-optic networks, and the network from the research center on shore out to the habitat. All of these have to work flawlessly. The experiments themselves involve telerobotic surgical procedures, which we will be doing on mannequins. Volunteers are difficult to get for these types of experiments. With these mannequins, a telerobotic surgical arm and some of the endoscopes that we have, we will do two things: number 1, we'll be guided in some of these procedures. Dr. Anvari will have a good view, both from the outside and then from the endoscopic side; and he can tell us where to put instruments and to perform the surgery ourselves with his guidance. Number 2, it will be totally autonomous-Dr. Anvari himself performing these procedures from Hamilton with the telerobotic surgical arm-will be draining an abscess with ultrasound guidance. He'll be performing a cholecystectomy, a removal of the gallbladder, on one of our very sophisticated mannequins. In cystoscopy we're looking actually for kidney stones and how we might deal with those. They are a risk of, of spaceflight, so it's something we've had a keen interest in for quite a while. And, of course, vascular repair Some of these techniques will all be test-bedded on the NEEMO mission.

How might these experiments be helpful on the International Space Station or any future exploration to the moon or Mars or wherever else we go?

Well, there's an overlap of technology that, that will be useful to us. On the International Space Station, where we don't have too much of a communications lag, it'll actually be fairly applicable. What we perfect in the NEEMO missions we can actually use on the International Space Station if it suits our mission needs. The idea of doing any kind of surgery in space is fairly daunting. But, so is the idea of having to evacuate someone to Earth -- that's also fairly daunting and risky. So, in looking at that risk/benefits equation, some of these might actually allow us to perform procedures in space and the overall outcome would probably be safer than, than having to evacuate someone. We'll be looking very closely at the technologies that will be useful to spaceflight, and then we will run them through a process which will make them, hopefully, smaller, more reliable, less power-intensive, and, above all, very user friendly so that the person on board who's perhaps not a, a physician can actually make use of these. In this case, the surgical brains will be on the ground. That's where you want that expertise to be. The proficiency required is just tremendous and difficult to fit into a standard Space Station crewmember. From here, we'll also develop a further subset of technologies that we'll take outward to the moon and to Mars and elsewhere. The communication lag becomes a problem. The communication latency involved, for instance, with being on Mars could be anywhere between eight and 22 minutes for one-way communication. So, you won't be doing any real-time telerobotic surgery. However, some of these could be very useful as robotic-assist devices. The telementoring that we do, where the people on the ground can actually provide detailed instructions, can be done in what we call "a store-and-forward" fashion, where a sophisticated diagnosis comes back from the crewmembers who are equipped with, with the latest diagnostic instruments such as some of the things we'll be test-bedding. And then, a very cogent, logical and complete plan is formulated on the ground and transmitted back - complete with a training video perchance, that they could actually view and even use the instruments to go ahead and perform that procedure. So a lot of the technology we develop will have some implications in the future, and it's our job to find out what that subset is and how best to proceed with developing that for space flight.

This NEEMO mission will involve a lot of international cooperation, obviously, with the Canadian involvement. What's the significance of all this cooperation, and, how does it compare to the kind of cooperation that goes on in building the International Space Station?

I think from the spaceflight standpoint this is how we do business nowadays. It's a very international arena. And it's gratifying to see this come to the NEEMO world as well. We've got several different organizations involved. Aside from the U.S. and Canada, we also have several independent partners, being the Canadian Space Agency; the Centre for Minimal Access Surgery at McMaster's University I'd mentioned;.we've got the military TATRAC organization, which also looks at advanced medical technologies and it's a U.S. organization. Along with that, we've got other partners: CISCO systems, Canada; Bell Canada; many other partners who are just involved or have stakes in the technology that we're using and developing here, very similar to spaceflight, there are many different organizations. Two space agencies, and, of course, we can't forget the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who actually owns the habitat and the, the underwater research center at North Carolina who administers this facility. So, all of these organizations have to work together to make this a success and coordinate together. It's actually very akin to what we do with the International Space Station. The one thing we don't have is a language barrier, but I foresee that coming in future NEEMO missions!

What are you most looking forward to with this mission?

I think looking out the window.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 10/13/2004
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