Fragile Oasis

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Splash Down + 16 Days

Today is our last full day on Aquarius. As the mission draws to a close I find myself contending with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am very much looking forward to reuniting with my family back in Houston but on the other hand, I am going to miss being a resident of Conch Reef.

Dave, Tim, Nicole and I conducted our last excursion this morning. We all headed South East just after 8:00am to retrieve cargo from a simulated lunar cargo ship that landed in the vicinity of the habitat the night before. Based on a rough idea of the landing coordinates from Mission Control we devised a search plan and succeeded in finding the cargo ship in the vicinity of the Kamper fill station shortly after starting the search. We retrieved the cargo (peanut butter cookies) and then proceeded back to the sand patch that is home to Aquarius to dismantle Waterlab (not before Ross took a picture of our successful aquanaut construction team). After we accomplished all our dive objectives we had about a half an hour left to simply enjoy the ocean and say goodbye to our neighbors. As the dive was ending and we approached the wet porch, we all realized that this was the last time for this mission that we would be able to fully enjoy our undersea world.

After the dive we all packed up our remaining equipment and belongings as Jim and Ross started initial preparation for decompression. I can't possibly give enough praise to describe the outstanding and professional job that Jim Buckley and Ross Hein did on this mission. The success of this mission is due in large part to their incredible talent and dedication. In addition to the all the help they gave us during the mission we also owe them a great debt of gratitude for the 18 day marine biology tutorial they provided us. Both Jim and Ross possess a wealth of knowledge of the undersea world. Beside the knowledge they passed on to us they also greatly enhanced our overall experience on Aquarius.

We also had the opportunity to talk to Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter who came to NURC to congratulate us on a successful mission. Besides being one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts he also was instrumental in the SeaLab undersea research program and was the first person to become both an astronaut and aquanaut. It was great speaking with him.

About 4:00 pm we started the process of slowly bring the pressure of the habitat down to sea level pressure. For the last 17 hours of the mission our crew increased to 7 with the arrival of James Talacek. James was responsible for monitoring the Aquarius systems during the initial decompression and monitoring the crew for signs of decompression sickness and oxygen toxicity. Before starting the venting of the habitat atmosphere, the heavy steel hatch that separates the wet porch from the entry lock was closed, sealing the crew of seven inside Aquarius. As we started the decompression the six NEEMO 9 crew members climbed into our bunks and started a series of 20 minutes breathing 100% oxygen 5 minutes off oxygen. We continued this series for 3 cycles to help flush nitrogen from our bodies. For the next 17 hours as the pressure inside Aquarius slowly dropped toward sea level pressure we spent most of the time watching movies on a portable DVD player that we set up just below the view port in the bunk room. After such a busy mission it was very nice to be able to relax during the last part of the mission.

As night fell it was a very interesting experience to watch movies while just above the monitor playing the movie the busyness of the undersea world continued in plain view. Schools of fish were highlighted in the spotlight off the bow of Aquarius, 300 pound Groupers (Stella &
Lucy) lumbered past the view port continuously while the sudden disappearance of the schools of fish signaled the arrival of Barracudas. To be able to enjoy a movie while simultaneously enjoying our last look at the sea life was a very relaxing and rewarding experience. We fell asleep in our bunks as Jim, Ross, and James took turns monitoring the decompression through the night.