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Scientists have built a lab 62 feet under the sea - but they aren't using it to explore the ocean

Before you can become an astronaut – you need to learn how to be an aquanaut.
Jun 10th 2015, 7:12 PM 11,646 17

IF YOU WANT to see how astronauts will mine the Moon, anchor an asteroid, or drive rovers on Mars, then look no further than the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO.

NEEMO is the only undersea research station in the world, and astronaut crews have been training with it ever since the facility was first established in 2001.

Resting on the Atlantic ocean’s seafloor, 62 feet below the surface and 3.5 miles off the coastlines of Key Largo, Florida, NEEMO offers astronauts the closest environment to outer space they can get without strapping themselves to a rocket.

When they’re under the sea, these astronauts train for NASA’s most prestigious upcoming missions — in some sense, you need to learn to be an aquanaut before you can become an astronaut.

Here are some of the incredible things these sea-faring explorers do while they’re getting they’re feet wet for space.

First thing’s first: The aquanauts have to get to their undersea station. They do this, naturally, by plunging into the Atlantic.

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As they approach their new home, each astronaut crew will see the main base, called Aquarius, loom into view through the clear-blue waters.

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Aquarius only has enough room to accommodate up to 7 people at a time and each mission lasts no longer than 3 weeks. Shown here are four members of the NEEMO 10 crew who stayed from July 22 through 28 in 2006.

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To reduce the risk of decompression sickness when they return to the surface, the aquanauts practice saturation diving — a technique that limits the number of decompressions they complete, which reduces the potentially fatal risks that come with decompression sickness.

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Unlike the crustacean-crusted outer walls of the station, the inside is clean. It includes a series of peep holes so the crew can enjoy the many fish that swim by. Or maybe it’s the fish enjoying the humans.

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NEEMO offers the closest environment to space because of the buoyancy we experience while under water. Therefore, working under water is more like working on the Moon or another low-gravity environment than on Earth.

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Moreover, NEEMO includes confined living quarters surrounded by an environment that is lethal to humans without the proper equipment, like oxygen supplies. That’s why astronauts sometimes train here before reaching the International Space Station. Scott Kelly, for example, is now serving a year aboard the ISS, but trained on two NEEMO missions beforehand.

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Here’s the sleeping quarters inside Aquarius with, as you can see, very narrow bunks. This bedroom sits at the end of the main room that’s no larger than a NYC studio apartment and includes the crew’s dining table, kitchen, and work site.

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Most of the crew members’ time is spent outside of Aquarius training for future space missions. Here a crew member climbs a ramp to simulate tasks that would involve similar structures on the lunar surface.

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If NASA brings an asteroid into orbit around the Moon, like it plans to, astronauts might be sent to explore the surface. Because gravity is so weak on an asteroid, they’ll have to anchor themselves to the surface, which is what this crew member is practicing here:

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All photos: NASA. By Jessica Orwig for Business Insider.

Read: This space suit isn’t from a new sci-fi movie. NASA astronauts might wear this to Mars

Read: An inspiration to multiple generations of scientists and astronauts … Read NASA’s moving tribute to Leonard Nimoy

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