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NEEMO 7: Home | Journals
Crew Interviews
IMAGE: Robert Thirsk
NEEMO 7 Mission Commander Robert Thirsk

Interview: Robert Thirsk

The NEEMO 7 Crew Interview with Robert Thirsk, mission commander.

Q: We are talking with Bob Thirsk of the NEEMO 7 crew. You’re going to be participating in this mission coming up in October. What in your background gives you the experience to be involved in something like this?

A: I have a strong background in mechanical engineering, but more particularly related to this mission, medicine. I am a physician. I’ve had the opportunity to participate on a Space Shuttle mission as a payload specialist. A payload specialist is a person whose primary responsibility on the flight is performing the actual research, as opposed to operating spacecraft systems. The NEEMO 7 mission has many objectives but probably the most important objective for this mission is demonstrating medical technology and medical procedures in harsh environment. So my background as a physician, my interest as a physician, is to make sure that these research objectives and medical technology are met.

Before we get into the actual heart of what you guys are going to be doing on this mission, tell me more generally what NEEMO is, and how it relates to the International Space Station?

NEEMO 7 is the name given to a series of missions that NASA and its partners have conducted in an undersea habitat called Aquarius. Aquarius is a bus-sized underwater habitat off the coast of Florida, about 6 kilometers off Key Largo. It’s about 50 to 60 feet under water, which provides a wonderful opportunity to conduct research, but also for astronauts who are perhaps designated for future Space Station missions, to become acquainted with mission operations that are similar to a Space Station expedition and also to see what their strengths and their weaknesses are before actually being assigned to a Space Station mission. So we could say that Aquarius and the NEEMO missions are wonderful analogs of what to expect on a Space Station mission.

What was the process for getting selected to be participating in this NEEMO mission? What exactly were they looking for that they selected you for this?

To be selected for a NEEMO mission I think there are at least two things that need to be met. No. 1, the individual aquanaut needs to have an interest in this type of thing. In my case I’m very interested in undersea research and new challenges, physical and mental challenges, which an undersea living environment would certainly present. So the individual astronaut or aquanaut needs to have an interest in the capabilities for this type of environment. No. 2, I think there also are programmatic selection criteria. The NEEMO mission in the Aquarius habitat is a wonderful analog for a Space Station increment, and therefore any individual who perhaps in the future could be assigned to a Space Station mission, long duration mission from three months to 12 months in duration, really needs to get exposed to the harsh living environment and the challenging operational environment of an analog environment such as an undersea Aquarius habitat mission, before actually being assigned a Space Station increment. It’s a wonderful way for the individual and for the training program to help the individual get ready for Space Station flight.

You’ve gone through a lot of probably interesting training here at JSC and other places for this mission; how does it differ from your normal training here at JSC?

Most of the training that I have conducted so far in my, my career has been done at JSC, the NASA human spaceflight center, or at the partner Space Station facilities. A lot of those have been conducted in simulators and in classrooms, and in robotic facilities. Training for NEEMO is a little bit different in that we are actually out there in the environment. We’re out there 60 feet down off the shore off Florida, and working with other outside organizations that are not normally associated with spaceflight. NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States is responsible for, for some of our training, the University of North Carolina, McMaster University in Canada are also responsible for portions of our, training as well. So it’s a little bit, the way that training is conducted is a little bit different than what we’ve been doing for actually Space Shuttle or Space Station training. It’s exciting, new challenges, a great adventure.

This NEEMO mission is going to focus on long-distance medicine, surgery. Tell me more about the experiments that will be conducted during this mission.

There are several experiments related to medical technology that will be performed on this flight and also the usual coral science or undersea science research as, as well. But absolutely the most important experiment on this flight will be the telerobotic surgery that we’ll be looking at. Telerobotic surgery on the surface, in a hospital setting, is very new. So it’s extremely new to be trying to do this in a hostile environment such as an undersea habitat. One of the great heritages of the space program is that we’ve been able to develop, or facilitate technology for space flight, that also has spinoffs to terrestrial society. Telerobotic surgery is certainly an example of that. No. 1, telerobotic surgery that we’ll be demonstrating in the harsh undersea environment of Aquarius will provide benefits to future space explorers. It is an exploration enabling technology which will allow astronauts to go to a long duration mission such as the first exploration mission to Mars. If an astronaut were to develop a surgical complication; appendicitis or, a gall bladder stone problem on the way to Mars, the only way to treat that right now is with antibiotics. That is insufficient for a long duration mission such as a Mars mission. Telerobotic surgery needs to be developed to treat that type of a malady. No. 2, a lot of these technologies that we’ll be developing on the NEEMO mission, will have spinoffs immediately in medical care for people on Earth. I’m Canadian. Part of Canada is very remote from tertiary medical centers. Up in Baffin Island, up in the Northwest Territories or in the Yukon, these people can benefit from telerobotic surgery that if conducted from a primary care center in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg … So the technology we’ll be demonstrating on the Aquarius mission will have near term benefits to terrestrial society in the Canadian far North.

A lot of international cooperation going on in this particular mission. Tell me about the importance of that, and how that also relates to the work that goes onboard the International Space Station.

I believe that one of the main benefits of the Space Station program is not just the ground-breaking medical science and material science research that we’ll be doing, but also the diplomatic or the international cooperation, ties that we’ll be integrating amongst all the various partner countries. In this world unfortunately today there are a lot of reasons to cause countries to separate and to go their own ways, but space is one where we can bring countries together. So I’m very proud that Canada is a very strong partner in the NEEMO 7 mission along with NASA and some of the American medical institutions here. This is allowing us to pool resources, pool expertise to meet the needs of not only Canadians but Americans and other societies as well. One of the strongest points of the space program today is international cooperation.

Another strong point is pushing the edge of technology. What kind of role do missions like this play in, in pushing the edge of technology and making us learn new things?

One of the exciting things for this mission is getting exposure to some of these new technologies. For example, telerobotic surgery, which we’ve already talked, about is brand new technology; and I’ll have the opportunity as a, as an aquanaut to be able to operate this equipment and become familiar with up-to-date procedures to perform telerobotic surgery. This will benefit me, it will also benefit the surgeons to see how they can implement new technology to enable minimally trained people, astronauts, aquanauts, to credibly perform, medical procedures. Also for the undersea research portion of the mission we’ll be using some very brand new scuba equipment, for example if you’re a scuba diver you know that the typical hardware we use involves a scuba mask and a separate regulator. Well, we’re going to be using full face masks which include communication systems inside the mask which allows us to communicate, very clear, clarity to people back on the surface or even thousands of miles away in an institution. This is brand new technology for me. We’re also going to be using some of the equipment that deep sea divers use. Divers that go down to 2,000 feet under the ocean. A hard shell type of helmet which allows us complete mobility of our head and excellent ability to communicate and more credibly perform the research that we’ll be doing. Not 2,000 feet, but 60 feet to 90 feet, under the water as well. The Aquarius habitat is a tough habitat or tough environment to operate in. We have high humidity; the air conditioning is not optimal; the communication and power lines are not as optimal as what they would be in a tertiary hospital setting. So to demonstrate this cutting edge technology in a hostile environment is a very useful objective of this mission.

What are you most looking forward to in this mission?

I think one of the advantages of this mission is that we are going to get the message out that space technology and space endeavors benefit society on Earth. And I want to be a part of getting that message out. So that’s probably going to be one of my key roles during the actual mission. If we were suddenly to remove space technology from everyday life, I think people would be surprised how limited they are. Communication technology, remote sensing technology, search and rescue capability which touches the lives of thousands of people everyday. Saving lives of people in stranded boats and downed aircraft; the ability to monitor our agricultural crops; to monitor weather and to report the weather forecast to people everyday -- It’s all based on space technology and I think that people don’t realize that. The other key area is medical technology as, as well. If suddenly we were to go through all the hospitals of the world, or the doctors offices of the world and remove every bit of technology there, or capability that derived from the space program; the public and the medical system would be very limited. On the NEEMO 7 mission we’re going to be developing a brand new technology, telerobotic surgery; which is not in place in all the hospitals today, but in the next 5, 10, 15 years it will be. It will be a key technology, and I want to wave the flag that, ‘Hey, the space program is helping to develop this technology.’ It does make a difference in people’s lives here on Earth.

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