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Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Living among friends -- and fish

Living on the edge of a coral reef can have its challenges. Just ask astronaut Jeanette Epps.

"I have to put on a bathing suit, go through the gazebo door at the far end, and swim underwater for a few seconds to get to the bathroom," she said laughing. "You get wet. And, I have to announce when I go out. I have to let someone know on the topside that someone is outside of the module."

So life goes at the Aquarius, 60 feet under the surface.

As part of the astronaut's training for a future mission to space, Epps is living underwater in what she equates to a large hotel suite. She has three other teammates and several Florida International University mission technicians to share the small quarters with. Bed bunks are stacked in threes, and there is very little "private" space.

But she is quick to say that although the experience is not quite what she had imagined, it has far exceeded her expectations.

At meal time, the group eats rehydrated and hiking-type food. Daily showers are rare because of limited hot water. A camera is turned on most of the time, so mission control can monitor the conditions at the facility.

"The food is pretty good. Haki (Commander Akihiko Hoshide) actually brought us curry chicken, beef and pork. It is what they eat at the space station," Epps said.

When outside of the undersea lab, she said the fish are incredible. She has seen species that are not available in aquariums.

"There are two Goliath groupers that hang around and peek in the windows, and when I go out, they swim over to me and just look at me and then swim away," she said. "And the barracudas are docile, not aggressive at all. They watch us when we go outside."

From inside the pod, it is hard to tell you are not sitting at home. But once you exit through the wet porch to the sea, there is a dramatic change in the environment.

She explained how there is a phenomena called water drag that makes it slower to move in the water. In space, there is the opposite -- space suit drag -- where you can move more freely without stopping, but it is more difficult to work with gloves on and one has to deal with the constraints of the space suit.

"With a wet suit in the water, it is much easier to turn knobs and do things," Epps said.

More than halfway through the mission, the astronaut is taking home much more than just scientific knowledge needed to survive in space.

"We are a multicultural crew and we share stories," Epps said. "I have gained a deep interesting perspective through this experience: We all inhabitant one planet, we are all one."

sfrederick@keysnews.com

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