NEEMO mission ends early – conducts six successful underwater EVAs

by Chris Bergin

NASA 13 day Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission has ended earlier than expected, due to a potential hurricane threat to the Key Largo, Florida – where the Aquarius underwater habitat is located. The mission was still highly successful, with six underwater EVAs conducted, providing valuable lessons for a potential crewed mission to an asteroid in the future.


Owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and managed by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Aquarius operates 3.5 miles off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is deployed next to deep coral reefs 19 meters below the surface.

While it is in regular use by numerous scientists – such as marine biologists – 14 missions had already been conducted by NEEMO, which involves NASA crews – known as aquanauts – spending up to three weeks living underwater.

However, the 15th NEEMO mission ended earlier than planned, due to the predicted path of Hurricane Rina. The NOAA, which operates the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory and the agency determined Rina posed a risk to the safety of the mission.

According to NASA, the six aquanauts of the NEEMO crew left the facility, where they lived for five days, and returned to the surface of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in Key Largo on Wednesday. NASA only released the information some time later.

The NEEMO 15 mission was led by NASA astronaut and former International Space Station (ISS) crew member Shannon Walker. The crew included Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Takuya Onishi and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques from the 2009 NASA astronaut class.

Steven Squyres of Cornell University was joined by James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington – who are both professional aquanauts, while NASA astronauts Stan Love, Richard Arnold and Mike Gernhardt, all veteran spacewalkers, participated in the NEEMO mission from the DeepWorker submersible, which they piloted.

Starting on October 20, the NEEMO crew conducted six underwater spacewalks and one day of scientific research inside the Aquarius habitat.

They also completed four days of scientific asteroid exploration analog operations using the deep worker submersibles that stood in for the Multi Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV).

This year’s mission was the first NEEMO to focus on operational concepts that would be used in human exploration of an asteroid – currently part of NASA’s exploration plan, likely to take place in the mid-2020s.

Mission scenarios included using a grid of “excursion lines”, accompanied by the submersibles acting as MMSEV (Multi Mission Space Exploration Vehicle).

“Despite the length, we accomplished a significant amount of research,” said NEEMO Project Manager Bill Todd. “We’re already learning lessons from working in this environment.”

NEEMO’s mission included a remote Mission Control Centers (MCC) – established both in Key Largo and building 30 room 211 at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) – which exercised time delay communication protocols, along with advanced planning and timeline development tools.

This involvement, led by NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD), mirrored their exploration training used for NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (DRATS) and the international Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) simulations – which also have NEO and Mars mission focus.

The next mission – NEEMO 16 – is tentatively set for the summer of 2012, which will build on the content for an exploration mission to a Near Earth Object (NEO).

Also see’s Flexible Path Review:
Part 1: Battle of the Heavy Lift Launchers – Monster 200mt vehicle noted
Part 2: Manned mission to construct huge GEO and deep space telescopes proposed
Part 3: NASA Flexible Path Evaluation of 2025 human mission to visit an asteriod
Part 4: Taking Aim on Phobos – NASA outline Flexible Path precursor to Man on Mars

As previously noted in other pre-NEEMO coverage by this site, no actual NEO destination has been chosen at this time, as much as a roadmap for exploration is currently being worked on by NASA.

The most likely candidates can be found via NASA’s Flexible Path presentation, which cited a mission to Near Earth Object 1999AO10, requiring a launch date of January 2, 2026. NASA managers continue to note that a NEO mission would likely occur in the middle of the next decade, making this target a viable example.

This deep space mission would last 155 days, around half of the mission length for the other candidate mentioned – 304 days – for NEO 2001 GP2.

With a robotic precursor mission launched four years in advance, the 1999AO10 mission is portrayed as requiring two Space Launch System vehicles being readied to launch.

The first HLV launch – per the Flexible Path approach – would place the Earth Departure Stage (EDS) and an “inflatable design Habitat” – otherwise known as the Deep Space Hab (DSH) into orbit first.

The higher propellant load Orion/SM (Service Module) – and likely the MMSEV – would then placed in LEO on the second launch. This is a different sequence to that proposed in other presentations, showing how such mission sequences remain undefined at this time.

(Images: L2 Content, NASA, NEEMO)

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