IHMC Scientist Finds NEEMO

Jun 28, 2016

Dr. Dawn Kernagis
Credit IHMC

A researcher from the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola is set to join a NASA project set under the sea. Dr. Dawn Kernagis is one of six crew members to join NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. That’s right, it’s project NEEMO. "It's a project that NASA runs every summer, it's been running since 2001. This will be the twenty first mission that they've run, so some years they've run multiple missions. And they send astronauts and researchers and engineers down to live underwater in the Florida Keys in the habitat at Aquarius Reef Base. We live at about 62 feet, at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. It's supposed to simulate living in the International Space Station. And we also so simulated space walks. We go outside of the habitat and do these simulated space walks to test out protocol and equipment, soft ware, hardware, things that they are interested in taking up to space either to the International Space Station or even beyond." 

Dr. Kernagis is a research scientist at IHMC and is an experienced diver. She says while she has had deeper dives, this is by far the longest. "My deepest dive at one point was just over 400 feet, that was a while ago. But this is definitely the longest by far. I think the longest dive I've done up to this point was...including decompression, probably about six hours." She says this mission will be over a week in length

While Dr. Kernagis will be involved in most of the experiments done during the project, her specific mission has to do with the effect that living in an enclosed space like the NEEMO project  has on your innards. "I'm studying how out gut bacteria changes in response to living in an environment like NEEMO." She'll be studying how human genes react and change. These are called epigenetic changes. "So we're looking at epigenetic changes that occur in response to living in that environment as well. The thought is that there is a tie between your gut bacteria, the changes in [that bacteria] and how that affects things like epigenetic changes." She says that will show how our brains work and our cognitive abilities, how well be function underwater and how we adapt to living in that environment. 

The thought behind this study is that the living environment of the NEEMO project is very much like that of the international space station. "You have different gasses that you're breathing, you're living in a pretty isolated environment, you're living in an environment with a different oxygen pressure (and) a little elevated CO2 level. And on top of that, when you go outside of that environment and you're doing the simulated space walks you're in this weightless environment just like you'd see if you were doing an actual space walk ."

Since 1996, Dr. Dawn Kernagis has been a diver and consultant for numerous diving exploration and research projects around the world. She was a manager with the world record breaking deep underwater cave exploration team for over 10 years. And this year she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. She says the research from this project will be spread over many different agencies. "NASA has a bunch of different project running, the European Space Agency, the Navy has interest in my project specifically and also a couple of other projects. There are a couple of companies that are invested as well and there are a number of different universities that are partnering." 

Dr. Kernagis will be underwater in the Atlantis Reef Base for the NEEMO Project from July 18 through August 2. Once she returns, she hopes to continue her research program at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. "I've been here one year now and so far so good. We're building on some research projects and we've got some really exciting things ahead. I just want to keep expanding the program here, building on the lab and bringing in some other researchers who are interested in human performance in extreme environments."