Splashdown +16 days
It was a little strange waking up this morning and knowing that tonight will be the last night we spend on board Aquarius. I'm really pleased with how quickly Aquarius became such a comfortable place to live and work. It gives me hope that someday if I'm privileged to spend an extended time on board the ISS, that it will also be as welcoming and comfortable. I look forward to comparing the beauty that surrounds them both.
We suited up early this morning for our final dive excursion outside the habitat. Our first task was to search for the cargo vehicle (which had been relocated from where we found it yesterday --- that would have been too easy). So Tim attached a cave reel at the 75 meter point on the Kamper excursion line, unreeled about 50 ft , we all picked a spot on the line about 10 feet apart, and proceeded to swim together with the line making an arc to search for the cargo vehicle. After swimming on the arc for no more than 20 degrees we had the vehicle in sight. Dave retrieved it (aka, red plastic coffee container); we reeled in the line, and returned to the habitat. We then continued our dive with the disassembly of waterlab -- came down pretty quickly with 5 people (Ross joined us for a little while too). Kind of sad to see it back in pieces again on the sea floor. We still had about 30 minutes left in the dive, so we took advantage of the time by swimming leisurely around the habitat together. It was very nice to have the time to take another close look at our home of the last 17 days. I don't know how better to describe it than very simply as an amazingly beautiful place. From a distance it has kind of rusty colored look to it, but as you get closer the details are impressive. The hull of Aquarius, especially the bottom, is like a beautiful, dynamic garden of multicolored soft and hard corals, sponges, tube worms, sea fans and other little sea creatures that have made it their home. We've been especially blessed with the opportunity to share their home with them.
This afternoon we started cleaning up the place in preparation for our decompression ("deco") of the habitat that will take place over the next 18 hours and for our departure to the surface tomorrow. James Talicek, one of our topside support divers, will be joining us shortly to ride out the deco with us. (Rumor has it he'll be bringing some yummy ribs and chicken to eat!) During this time we had a phone call from Scott Carpenter. He was calling to congratulate us on a successful mission and to remind us that we should never forget how special and important our undersea experience is. Having a Mercury 7 astronaut and Sea Lab aquanaut sharing his experience with us and telling us how important he thinks the things we're doing are -- How cool is that?!
Deco will start when we close the door to the wet porch and begin decompressing the habitat volume by venting to the surface over a 16 hour period. At the start, we'll all be in our bunks on oxygen masks for 70 minutes. The goal of this whole process will be to bring us slowly back to surface pressure of 1 atmosphere, and to eliminate the nitrogen from our bodies in the most efficient way. After our O2 session we will be free to move about the cabin again. Our plan is to watch some dvd's and catch up on photo management and our journals. Throughout the night Jim, Ross, and James will be taking shifts to manage the decompression. At about 0830 tomorrow morning we will hold pressure at 1 atm until we get the "go" from topside to quickly repressurize to 45 feet of sea water. As soon as that repressurization is complete we will open the wet porch hatch and be greeted by our escort divers. We'll have on our bathing suits, mask, fins and a pony bottle of air and will make our way together on a 2 minute ascent to the surface. I have to imagine that we'll all be holding on to the line looking back at Aquarius beneath us and thinking about what a fantastic mission this has been. I'm thankful to have been given the opportunity to participate in this mission with such a great crew. We accomplished all our tasks successfully and I know we learned a lot of lessons to pass on for both future NEEMO missions and for the future exploration of space. In the words of my crewmate Tim Broderick, leaving Aquarius and our NEEMO 9 family is bittersweet --- as sad as we are to leave this amazing place we are equally excited to be reunited with our family and friends on the surface.