May 11, 2010

Many of us were dismayed when President Obama recently announced cuts to NASA’s budget. Although everyone understands the need for austerity in these troubled economic times, I am always in favor of invention and exploration  - one of the best attributes of American culture.

This Friday, the space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to make its final launch, undertaking a 12-day mission to the International Space Station to replace solar panel batteries, install a backup antenna and attach a Russian module filled with supplies. After the Atlantis mission, the other two shuttles - Discovery and Endeavour - are each going to make one more flight, and then all three will be retired.

Maybe it’s because I was an impressionable 8 years old when President Kennedy gave his stirring "We will go to the moon….." speech. Or because I used to set my alarm to get up and watch the shuttle launch when my friend, Navy Captain and astronaut Dan Bursch flew one of his four missions. Danny shares the U.S. space endurance record with astronaut Carl Walz - 196 days in space! (his kids still remember this milestone because he missed Christmas and several birthdays - even an astronaut is still just "Dad" when he gets home). So, despite its flaws, limitations, and several tragedies, I felt very sad when I heard the Shuttle program was being discontinued.

The good news, reported in today’s Science Times, is that we’re continuing to train astronauts for exploration of other planets…..we’re just not doing it in space!

Yesterday marked the beginning of the 14th NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) mission. A crew of six, led by Col. Chris A. Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who flew two shuttle missions, descended 65 feet to an underwater laboratory off the coast of Florida, where they will practice the skills required for setting up a habitat on another planet.

 By adjusting the buoyancy of the diving suits, the aquanauts can go about their work feeling as if they are walking in the one-sixth gravity of the Moon or the three-eighths gravity of Mars.  And, they have set up a 20-minute time lag in communications with their mission controllers on the surface, just as they would have if they were trying to get advice or help in solving a big problem while on Mars.

Click here to read the entire story about how these aquanauts are developing the skills we will need for future space exploration. It’s not over yet!



Photo: NEEMO 13, courtesy NASA




Posted by: Liz Nealon

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