Might Be Too Late For ManKind.
Aquarius is an underwater laboratory and home to scientists for missions up to 10 days long, but to call Aquarius a home is like calling
the space shuttle Discovery a mode of transportation. Aquarius is made to withstand the pressure of ocean depths to 120 feet deep.
Presently, Aquarius is located in a sand patch adjacent to deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, at depth of
63 feet. The laboratory is attached to a baseplate that positions the underwater habitat (underwater laboratories are also called habitats)
about 13 feet off the bottom. This means that the working depth of those inside the laboratory is about 50 feet deep. Located inside
the 81-ton, 43 x 20 x 16.5 - foot underwater laboratory are all the comforts of home: six bunks, a shower and toilet, instant hot water,
a microwave, trash compactor, and a refrigerator - even air conditioning and computers linked back to the shore base, located in Key
Largo, by wireless telemetry! The images and links seen below will give you an idea of exactly where Aquarius and the shore base
As the International Space Station orbits earth in outer space, it may surprise you to learn that America also operates an "inner
space" station called Aquarius , the world's only undersea laboratory dedicated to marine science and education. Owned by the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and managed by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington
(UNCW), Aquarius operates 4.5 kms offshore of Key Largo, Florida. The underwater laboratory is deployed next to deep coral reefs,
20 meters beneath the surface. As in its outer space counterpart, "aquanauts" explore and investigate an environment hostile to
human habitation. Aquarius provides life support systems that allow scientists to live and work underwater, in reasonably comfortable
living quarters, with sophisticated research capabilities. Aquarius is a valuable national asset that advances our understanding of the
ocean and its resources. The underwater laboratory also provides a unique window into our oceans, where special events and media
access help to capture the attention and imagination of students and the public, worldwide.
A short history of living in the sea
In the brief history of undersea laboratories (also known as "habitats"), 65 separate programs operated during the last four decades
(Koblick and Miller, 1995), including Jacques Cousteau's famous Conshelf project and American programs such as Tektite, Hydrolab,
and the US Navy's Sealab Program, managed by Dr. George F. Bond. The early days focused on human physiology; the Navy's
Genesis Program (1957 - 1962) set standards that defined the birth of saturation diving and led to the SeaLab programs (Bond
and Siteri 1993, Barth 2000). The technical achievements of the Genesis Program and SeaLab revolutionized the commercial dive
industry. However, the science community was slow to adopt saturation diving techniques. Most underwater habitats were best
described as projects, rather than programs. Science objectives were not always well defined, operations and administration
sometimes faltered, and funding was not sustained. Still, significant advances were made and the success of the Aquarius program
is built on the legacy of these past efforts. The longest running program, in terms of missions conducted, was Hydrolab.
Approximately 180 Hydrolab missions were conducted in the Bahamas (100 missions in the early to mid 1970s) and St. Croix,
USVI (80 missions from 1977 to 1985). Aquarius is the second longest running program, and currently the only underwater
laboratory dedicated to science operating in the world. Over 50 missions have already been completed using Aquarius
(as of August 2000).
NOAA's and UNCW's Aquarius program
Aquarius was originally conceived and funded by NOAA's National Undersea Research Program (NURP) in the mid 1980s.
The underwater laboratory was built by Victoria Machine Works in 1986-87. Initial deployment was in the U.S. Virgin Islands
where 13 missions were conducted before Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989, and devastated St. Croix. Aquarius was retrieved
from the seafloor in 1990 and was moved to North Carolina where it was refurbished under the direction of the University of
North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW). In 1993, the laboratory was redeployed in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary,
and supported 22 missions during the next three years. In 1996, Aquarius was recovered, refurbished and "re-invented" in
partnership with UNCW, NOAA, and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. Many improvements were made to the system
including construction of a semi-autonomous life support buoy that replaced a 17 by 34-meter life support barge. Aquarius was
redeployed in 1997 (Figure 2: low res/high res) and operations resumed in 1998. Since then, Aquarius has supported over 20
missions and has a full mission schedule well into 2001. NOAA continues to be the primary source of funding for the program.
Cost of Aquarius
The cost of operating Aquarius is between $1.3 and $1.5 million a year. This translates to an operating cost estimated at about
$10,000 per day (total cost of program divided by the number of saturation days), which is a higher day rate than surface-based
diving programs. However, a 10 day Aquarius mission would take more than 60 days if conducted using surface-based
technology, and few scientists have the time to spend months in the field, when a 10 day Aquarius mission can be used to
accomplish the same goals. This assumes that the work could even be conducted from the surface, which many times is not
the case because Aquarius provides unique laboratory capabilities (not available using boats). Significantly, the conversion
data from Aquarius to surface-based diving assumes an unreasonably rigorous (and risky) dive schedule and no weather
delays. If expenses are compared on a per project basis, a 10 day Aquarius mission costs about $40,000 more than a 60
day surface-based program - assuming the work could even be conducted from the surface, which in many cases is not
possible. Additionally, Aquarius provides significant media access and public outreach capabilities that are not possible in
conventional dive operations, and while the program's science mission is paramount these other activities are valuable too.
\Additional information about the cost of operating Aquarius is presented in: The Aquarius underwater laboratory:
America's inner space station.
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