May 29, 2019

Csilla Ari D'Agostino keeps watch over saturation divers on a NASA mission at the Aquarius undersea laboratory in 2017. D'Agostino joins a four-woman research crew for a 10-day mission in June.

NASA Csilla Ari D'Agostino keeps watch over saturation divers on a NASA mission at the Aquarius undersea laboratory in 2017. D'Agostino joins a four-woman research crew for a 10-day mission in June.

ISLAMORADA — An underwater crew with their eyes on a space launch prepares to go deep June 10 as the Aquarius Reef Base launches its first saturation mission since Hurricane Irma.

A four-woman science crew selected for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation 23 (NEEMO 23) is now in the Florida Keys working to begin a 10-day underwater mission that simulates tasks needed for space and lunar exploration.

Scientists on the upcoming NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation 23 aboard the Aquarius undersea laboratory include, from left, Csilla Ari D’Agostino, European astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, Shirley Pomponi and Jessica Watkins.

“I’ve been fascinated about the oceans and marine life since I was a kid,” said crew member Csilla Ari D’Agostino, a research assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. “I truly was always hoping to stay down there with them longer. Now it’s a dream come true.”

Florida International University in Miami since 2013 has operated the Aquarius, the only functional undersea laboratory in the world. It lies about five miles offshore and 62 feet down at Conch Reef. The Aquarius has been in the Keys for more than 25 years.

The main habitat withstood the September 2017 hurricane, but the Aquarius’ large high-tech support buoy ripped loose from its moorings and floated about 14 miles to Lignum Vitae Channel. Some structures on the sea floor outside the habitat were heavily damaged.

“She’s battered but she’ll be back,” Aquarius director Jim Fourqurean said soon after Irma.

The Aquarius is expected to be ready for the June 10-19 mission. FIU staff divers and technicians were at sea this week to finish preparations for NEEMO 23.

“The aquanauts will study the potential challenges that come with living in such an extreme environment and test several emerging technologies inside the habitat and during simulated spacewalks, called extravehicular activities,” says a USF report on the mission. “They will work with a scanning electron microscope that will be operated underwater for the first time and have several marine-science objectives that focus on sponge and coral research while simulating lunar geological exploration.”

During the mission, D’Agostino will administer a series of tests to assess physiological and psychological changes that may occur during extended periods of working and living in conditions similar to space.

“Our goal is to increase the safety, physical and mental performance, as well as neuroprotection effectively in both genders during undersea and deep-space exploration missions,” she said.

Leading the four-woman team is veteran astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti of the Italian European Space Agency, who set a record for the longest stay in space — then 199 days — by a woman.

The team also includes Jessica Watkins, a NASA astronaut candidate, and Shirley Pomponi, a marine biologist at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. Two male Aquarius technicians also stay aboard the habitat during the 10-day mission.

D’Agostino has familiarity working with the Aquarius, serving as a support diver in 2017’s NEEMO 22 while her husband, an associate professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology at USF, took part in the multi-day saturation dive.

“We had a great time,” she told the Free Press. “Almost every day we were out on the boat, bringing things from the experiments up to the surface or taking things back down. We made sure [long air hoses used by aquanauts] didn’t scrape the coral or get entangled.”

“This will be my first saturation dive and I’m very excited about it,” D’Agostino said. “It actually was a surprise they selected me as a crew member. It’s an honor. I’m looking forward to working with the crew who all are very inspiring people.”