KEY LARGO -- A new age of Aquarius could be dawning just offshore of Key Largo.
"We're not going to go away," said Debra Illes, executive director of the nascent Aquarius Foundation, which is promising to save NOAA's undersea Aquarius Reef Base research station.
For the past two decades, the Aquarius station has been used by scientists from NOAA, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and elsewhere who are tracking changes to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Located three and a half miles off Key Largo in 60 feet of water, it is the world's only existing undersea research station, NOAA says.
But the future of the lab, which has always relied on federal funding, has been in jeopardy since the release of President Barack Obama's 2013 budget proposal that called for cutting the entire Underseas Research Program, which includes Aquarius.
Appropriations committees in both the U.S. House and Senate have since concurred with the recommendation, Aquarius Operations Director Saul Rosser said.
Aquarius this year is receiving $1.2 million in federal funding. But in better times, funding levels were in the $2.5 million to $3 million range, he added.
Enter the Aquarius Foundation, which has filed articles of incorporation but is still waiting official accreditation as a non-profit entity. In the meantime, the foundation has arranged for Divers Alert Network, or DAN, to serve as a pass-through for donations.
Illes said she couldn't provide specifics, as donations have not yet been finalized, but she expressed confidence last week that the foundation will raise enough money to keep Aquarius submerged.
The foundation, whose board includes underwater photographer Stephen Frink and scientist Joe Pawlik, is hoping to provide the facility with an annual operating budget of $1.5 million, Illes said, and both individuals and institutions, including universities, have come forward as potential donors.
"We believe we will provide enough funding for us to maintain operations and set a good foundation for the future," Illes said.
The foundation's announcement was timed to coincide with a 12-day training exercise that NASA is undertaking on the Aquarius.
Called Operation NEEMO, the exercise makes use of the underwater environment around Aquarius to simulate the zero-gravity conditions of deep space, where in 2025 NASA is planning to land humans on an asteroid.
This is the 16th time since 2001 that Operation NEEMO has trained at Aquarius. Mission Director Marc Reagan said he hopes there will be a 17th to assist NEEMO in moving toward its goal of gathering asteroid samples for analysis.
"Nobody knows how to live, work and explore a distant planet," he said. "We use analogs like this to do operations in the field that are as close as we can get to those mission objectives."
For the moment though, there's only optimism, not certainty, that Aquarius will survive. The last mission presently on the schedule for the research station is in July. It will feature a science component, with research to be conducted on corals and sponges, Rosser said. But Aquarius staff also plans to use the mission for a major public outreach effort.
Rosser said he's hopeful that there will be more to come for the underwater laboratory.
"My impression is that there is a very good chance of continuing the program," he said. "But it requires active engagement from both the private and the public."