NASA astronauts train in Florida Keys for voyage to an asteroid

The Miami HeraldNovember 3, 2011 

At 60 feet below the ocean’s surface, alongside coral, fish and a curious goliath grouper, NASA astronauts and scientists spent seven days testing battery-powered jet packs, booms with magnets, robotic arms on one-man subs and other ways to function in zero gravity.

The Florida Keys underwater world is helping NASA prepare for humankind’s first trip to an asteroid.

“It would be the first time that human beings have left the Earth/moon system and started to explore the solar system, to explore Mars and beyond,” said NASA asteroid expert Paul Abell. “That’s a very exciting prospect for us.”

Such an endeavor will take billions of dollars and years of effort to learn the unknowns and conquer the challenges and risks. But Abell, based out of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the ambitious program is worthwhile for many reasons, including this biggie: planet defense.

“Twenty percent of near-Earth asteroids are considered potentially hazardous,” Abell said. “Dinosaurs were wiped out by a big asteroid impact 65 million years ago. We don’t know when or where it will happen again, but it will happen again, and it would be nice to be prepared for that event.”

While the goal date to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid is more than a decade down the road at 2025, to boldly go where no man or woman has gone before starts with baby steps — of which some were just taken in Key Largo.

About 70 people, including NASA astronaut Shannon Walker who recently returned from six months at the International Space Station, were in the Keys the past week for the 15th NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, known as NEEMO. The underwater missions simulate the harsh and confined human conditions of space. Six of the crew live at the Aquarius underwater laboratory, a 400-square-foot habitat that rests on the seabottom about 3.5 miles offshore and has been providing lodging and life support for underwater scientists since 1993.

It was the first NEEMO mission dedicated to asteroids, where the lack of gravity causes many challenges that lunar missions don’t have, starting with the inability to simply land a space vehicle on the rotating surface.

“And you can’t just chip off a piece of rock that you want to analyze and put it in your pocket like you can on the moon,” added Steve Chappell, NEEMO’s Deputy Mission Manager. “On an asteroid, it would fly away.”

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