My Journey to America’s Inner Space Station: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Asteroid

Heading out to Aquarius Reef Base.

The most incredible thing about the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory is that no one has ever heard of it.  Everyone knows there’s an international space station orbiting the planet, but ask 10 people right now if they’ve ever heard of an inner space station where aquanauts live for weeks at a time 60 ft. underwater, and my bet is that 10 of those people will look at you like you’re nuts.  

Why has no one ever heard of this place?  Is it because it’s in some exotic land, shrouded in secrecy?  Hardly, unless you consider South Florida exotic. 

Aquarius has been in the same spot since the early 1990s.  Mission control is conveniently located between a four story hotel and popular fish joint where the Jimmy Buffett songs flow all night long.  (Seriously, I could hear this guy belting out Cheeseburger In Paradise all night  from my hotel room as I was trying to hit the sack.)

The underwater lab is situated a few miles off Key Largo and, although it’s underwater, you’re not going to miss

The author, about to immerse himself in the subject.

it: a bright yellow, 30 ft. wide, 20ft tall Life Support Buoy (LSB) floats above it, pumping air, power and high speed internet to the aquanauts living below.

Part of my job for the week was to document the current mission at Aquarius: NEEMO 16 (the other part I will leave for a subsequent post).  NEEMO stands for NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations.  Aquarius is critical to NEEMO since it is in this extreme underwater environment that astronauts train for a variety of tasks that will ultimately be done in outer space.  Every NEEMO Mission since the program began in 2000 has been staged at Aquarius.  Number 16 was straight out of a science fiction film - astronauts training to land and work on an asteroid.  It  was Armageddon minus Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck.

While I didn’t dive on this trip and get up-close to the action, I was able to snorkel, free-dive and strap a Go-Pro

Looking down at Aquarius.

onto anything that I could get a clamp onto.   When the visibility was good, I floated over the most incredible show in the world: divers climbing man-made rock walls, deep sea submersibles shuttling astronauts around like Segways, topside divers shuttling goods to and from Aquarius - all of this with incredible sea creatures swimming everywhere. The whole thing felt very much like a Hollywood movie set… with fish.

Training for space…with barracudas, tarpon, and angelfish. It was surreal.  Even more unusual was that Aquarius did not look like the shiny yellow laboratory displayed on its website.  This railroad car-sized habitat 60 ft. below had become a living reef itself, supporting coral and all kinds of creatures that have made this structure home.   

Adding to the otherworldly vibe was the hydrophone perched over Aquarius, broadcasting the communications feed. Above the surface it was silent, but under the water, you could hear everything that was going on.. “Okay, start thrusters…”  a voice from mission control echoed out into the ocean, as a massive sea turtle popped up right beside my head to say hello. It was amazing.

Tourists screaming Margaritaville off key wasn’t the only thing that kept me up at night. Knowing that Aquarius may soon be coming to an end did too. After spending a week there, watching the unique work being done and getting to see such a talented team operate like a swiss watch, it’s hard to believe that the last underwater lab on Earth may be closing at the end of the year due to federal budget cuts. It would be a shame if we never did find out how to land on that asteroid that might be heading for straight for us.

But as the old saying goes, you don’t miss your water til your well runs dry (because IT WAS HIT BY AN ASTEROID).


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