Aquarius is an underwater laboratory and home to scientists for missions up to 10 days long. Aquarius is made to withstand the pressure of ocean depths to 120 feet deep.
The idea is not new. The world celebrity diver who developed the Aqualung SCUBA system Jacques Yves Cousteau turned the idea into a reality by the Conself underwater habitation experiment documented in the award winning documentary World Without Sun in 1964. Cousteau captured activities of six crew members living in Continental Shelf Station II at 10m depth for 30 days in Red Sea. Cousteau’s undersea colony was the forerunner of other human habitation experiments such as Biosphere2, Mars500 and Hi-SEAS. NOAA operated Aquarius from 1993 until 2013 when the budget of the base was cut. It was facing closure. The Florida International University took over operations and secured the reef base for future use.
Aquarius is located in a sand patch adjacent to deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, at a depth of 63 feet. The laboratory is fastened to a baseplate that keeps the underwater habitat 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 basics of habitation with six bunks, a shower and toilet, instant hot water, a microwave oven, trash compactor, a refrigerator and computers linked to shore wirelessly.
The Aquarius enables saturation diving. Scientists can work out on the reef up to nine hours a day without the risk of getting the dangerous decompression sickness. Divers could only work for one hour if they had to work from the surface. Increased bottom time enhances scientific productivity greatly. The facility has support personnel and can provide diver training, as well as scientific and operational expertise always emphasizing safety. A typical Aquarius mission lasts 10 days. There are shorter missions at the beginning of the year for training. Rarely missions last more than 14 days. A few special projects lasted close to 30 days. Once the crew are saturated the duration of the mission doesn’t change the mandatory decompression time. When missions end aquanauts decompress inside Aquarius, where pressure is slowly brought back to one atmosphere (or surface pressure) over 17 hours. Aquanauts then “lock–out” and swim to the surface. Aquarius was used to train International Space Station astronauts. You can get updates about the ongoing missions from the FIU website.