How can astronauts practice for future missions without actually traveling in space? Veteran astronauts Scott Kelly and Rex Walheim and their team will spend 5 days 63 feet underwater off the Florida Coast near Key Largo. Wearing diving gear, they swam down to the Aquarius undersea laboratory to begin the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) exercise, which will mimic a stay on board the International Space Station. The Aquarius laboratory is three miles off the Florida coast at Key Largo.

“The difference between being in a simulator in Houston and being here is that this is a real mission,” Kelly says. “We’re using it as a training analog, but we’re actually conducting a real mission underwater.” During their stay on the ocean floor, the crew will work on experiments, conduct “extravehicular activities” by diving outside to simulate building segments of a space station and learn to solve problems that come up without help from the people on the surface. They will leave the Aquarius laboratory to begin an underwater version of a spacewalk.

“The time we spend underwater is very analogous to a shuttle flight,” says NASA flight director Paul Hill. “We only have a few days to get the entire mission done, to get all the dives done and the various medical tests that we’re doing.” Normally the flight directors, who are responsible for the safety of the mission, stay in the command center. “It certainly feels different being on the crew’s end,” Hill says. “We’ve been doing this business long enough that we have a pretty good idea of the different stresses on the crew and things we can do on the ground that would make the crew’s life more miserable, or make things easier for them. Sometimes we lose sight of those things, even though we learn those lessons over and over.”

The underwater mission was supposed to begin on September 16, but was postponed due to Tropical Storm Isidore. This is nothing new for astronauts, who get missions postponed due to weather all the time. “It’s very similar,” says Kelly, who piloted the 1999 mission to fix the Hubble telescope.

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