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USF Professor Joins NASA Research At The Bottom Of The Ocean

Sixty feet beneath the water’s surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary sits one of the world’s three undersea research laboratories.

And as you read this, the Aquarius Reef Base is home to an international crew of researchers, including Dominic D’Agostino, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine.

He normally works in the USF Hyperbaric Biomedical Research Laboratory, surrounded by a collection of small, but very loud devices that simulate extreme environments, ranging from deep undersea to very high altitudes. He's also a research scientist for the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

But right now, D'Agostino is residing in an undersea habitat about the size of a 30 foot recreational vehicle. His roommates and fellow "aquanauts" are two scientists from NASA, one from the European Space Agency, and two support staff.

“So it is very close quarters, but there will not be a lot of downtime, so our time is kind of the essence there, we’ll be pretty task-loaded with the various objectives that we have for the mission,” D'Agostino told reporters at USF about a week before the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 22 expedition began.

"The NEEMO is designed as a deep space analog, you could call it an Earth-based analog for a Mars mission,” he added.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
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D'Agostino works on one of the machines used in the USF Hyperbaric Biomedical Research Laboratory to study extreme environments.

During the ten day trek, D’Agostino and his teammates will collect data during extra-vehicular activities (EVA's) like the ones astronauts might conduct on the surface of Mars.

“So we will do a similar situation, we’ll be sixty feet under the water in what’s called saturation environment," D'Agostino said, describing a setting where divers live in a pressurized environment requiring lengthy decompression to get back to surface pressure, but only at the end of the mission.

In addition, when the aquanauts take part in these EVA’s, they’ll be suited up in a way that simulates the weight they’d be on the surface of the Red Planet.

“And we’ll be given a list of tasks to do when we go out into that environment and these tasks can be things like collecting samples of coral reef and bringing them back and doing an analysis on that particular genetics of that coral,” he said.

As if that wasn’t challenging enough, the crew’s communications with Mission Control on the mainland will also mimic that of a deep space trip – there’ll be a time delay of around ten minutes between when a message is sent and the other side receives it.

“So a big part of the mission is being able to operate and being able to be proficient in our operation under this time delay,” D'Agostino said.

Research will also be conducted inside Aquarius, but that will look more at the effects the environment has on the aquanauts themselves, both physically and psychologically.

“So living in the habitat has, in part, certain psychological stress that will impact cognitive performance and just our overall psychological well-being," he said. "So it's very important to understand things like how living in a stressful habitat and being task-loaded can impact our physical abilities and our cognitive function and what they call 'team cognition' - working together as a crew."

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
D'Agostino's wife, fellow USF researcher Csilla Ari D’Agostino (right), fits her husband with a device to monitor his sleep patterns while PhD student Andrew Koutnik looks on.

One of the people monitoring and studying the crew is USF behavioral neuroscientist Csilla Ari D’Agostino – Dominic’s wife.

“She will be giving a battery of cognitive tests to look at things like reaction time, memory recall, vision, taste perception – all these things change in extreme environments of pressure,” he said.

The couple met at USF seven years ago over a shared love of diving and just celebrated their first wedding anniversary. I asked Ari D'Agostino if she has any inside information when it comes to evaluating her husband.

“Yeah, it’s exciting because I get to find out things about him," the Hungarian-born researcher said with a laugh. "Otherwise, probably he wouldn’t complete those tests.”

In actuality, the tests are coded by number, so Ari D'Agostino won’t actually know her husband’s answers. But she will get to see him while he's working, as she’s serving on the dive support team.

“I will be going up and down between the habitat and the surface and the mission control center to help coordinate things and help deliver supplies for them or whatever is needed for the experiments," she said.

Other studies will look at the effects of sleep deprivation, as well what the environment does to the bacteria inside the researchers’ digestive tracts. Dominic D'Agostino says that ten days will be enough to assess most of the physiological effects of a deep space mission, along with some of the psychological changes, up to a point.

“If we do see an effect, we could probably hypothesize that there would be a much greater effect with a longer duration," he said. "If we see an increase in stress hormones for example, if we see a breakdown in team cognition on days seven, eight and nine, that could be a harbinger for things that may happen in a longer duration space mission.”

Credit NASA
The D'Agostino's pose outside NASA's Neutral Buoyancy pool in Texas during his training for the NEEMO 22 expedition. Ari D'Agostino will serve as an expedition diver and conduct her own psychological research on the crew during the mission.

And while D'Agostino says he's physically ready for the mission, he is a little nervous about the rigors of some of the dives. He realized that was apparent the first time he got in the neutral buoyancy pool where NASA astronauts train.

"My first lap on my swim test, my heart started racing, it really took my breath away to the point I started panicking," he admitted. "I got so excited looking down as I’m swimming because it’s almost like you’re in space, above, looking down on a mock-up of the International Space Station.

However, D’Agostino says he's honored to be picked to be part of a mission that could help plot the future of deep space travel.

“It’s extremely humbling to have this opportunity and to be among these, I would really just call them elite-level people in the way they think and the way they operate, their leadership skills and the way they conduct themselves and their level of expertise," he said.

The Aquarius Reef Base is part of Florida International University's Marine Education and Research Initiative. You can follow the mission, including seeing live camera views, by visiting the Aquarius Reef Base website or Facebook page.

Weather permitting, the NEEMO 22 expedition is scheduled to wrap up June 27. 

Editor's note, 7/5: updated to correct  Csilla Ari D'Agostino's birthplace to Hungary instead of Belgium.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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