Remember Captain Nemo from the classic novel by Jules Verne? Now a 21st century NEEMO is focusing public attention on the bottom of the sea.
It’s an acronym for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations which sent a team of aquanauts to live in a futuristic lab under the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of learning how to survive in space.
One team member is a Las Vegas physician and scientist who has developed his own space age technology that is being tested right now.
In the clear water off Key West Florida, a team of divers is working to repair and regrow a damaged coral reef. But it’s much more than an environmental repair job.
Among those who dove into the Atlantic a few days ago is Las Vegas physician and scientist Dr. Marc O Griofa who told the I-Team before he left why rebuilding coral reefs could be useful far beyond the earth.
“From NASA’s point of view, we use those same techniques for capturing geological samples on an extraterrestrial surface, how you would go to maintain the integrity of a sample, make sure it’s not contaminated, and get it home safely,” said Dr. Marc O Griofa, Las Vegas physician.
O Griofa is part of the NEEMO mission, an acronym that conjures literary images of the captain of the Nautilus. The Aquarius is the world’s only permanent undersea lab. Its cramped quarters are home for the crew of aquanauts on a 16-day mission in the briny deep. Two of the crew are NASA astronauts, one is from the European space agency. What’s learned in the ocean is directly applicable to future missions in space.
“It’s effectively almost a small space station on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, that’s exactly what it is,” O Griofa said. “The data we gather from NEEMO replicates almost exactly a high intensity, high stress space mission, almost to a tee. This is one of the most high quality training environments we can put astronauts into to get them ready for space.”
As in space, the aquanauts can’t simply change their minds and go home, or pop out to the corner grocery. Decompression would take 15 hours, about the same time needed to get astronauts back to earth from the space station.
Before he left for Aquarius, O Griofa showed the I-Team his Las Vegas lab, inside a company called NMT, Non-Invasive Medical Technologies. The physician worked for a few years with NASA on the shuttle program, training triage teams to prepare for emergencies during launches and returns. He’s been doing similar training work at Nellis Air Force Base, teaching special ops teams including SEALs and Green Berets how to keep injured personnel alive while completing missions in hostile territory. One key is a device right out of Star Trek.
“You’re looking at the first generation of the Tricorder,” O Griofa said.
Remember the palm-sized medical device from the Star Ship Enterprise? The Zoey works in a similar way, obtaining key medical information without being invasive. It could work in a combat situation, in space, or underwater. One of the key reasons O Griofa is on the NEEMO mission is to see how Zoey performs.
Cameras in and around Aquarius document the entire mission. Every minute of every day is booked solid except when crew members grab shut-eye in the claustrophobic sleeping quarters.
O Griofa was thrilled to be chosen and would also go into space in a heartbeat if asked. And when he returns from this mission?
“I’ll be insufferable once I get back,” he said.
NASA has a live video feed from the Aquarius so the public can watch the mission is real time.