McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Students take part in deep sea mission

Published: April 12, 2006
Family Medicine Photo
Students talk via live satellite feed with aquanauts

More than 140 university and high school students crowded into a McMaster lecture hall on Tuesday to hear the crew of an underwater simulated space mission talk about the cutting-edge experiments they are conducting this week that will impact on the future of both medicine and space exploration.

With a satellite feed from the world’s only underwater habitat and research laboratory, the students were able to watch Canadian astronaut Dave Williams, who is leading the crew of six people currently living in Aquarius, as he answered their questions and moved about in the bus-sized facility that lies 18 metres below the surface of the water off the coast of Florida.

Williams directed several of the questions from the McMaster audience to fellow crew members, including American astronauts Nicole Stott and Ron Garan, and physician Tim Broderick.

The students were keen to know everything from how the crew members needed to prepare for the mission, known as NEEMO 9, to what would happen if one of the robots being used for surgical experiments malfunctioned.

Although some technical difficulties with the University’s Internet caused some delay in the satellite hook-up, a speaker phone connection with Williams was used to get the interaction rolling while the glitch was rectified.

Prior to the telephone and satellite hook-up with Aquarius, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and McMaster’s Dr. Mehran Anvari primed the students for their chance to ask questions of the NEEMO 9 crew by explaining their respective roles with the mission.

Hadfield, who has flown on two space missions, is a back-up crew member for the underwater mission, which is a joint project between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and McMaster’s Centre for Minimal Access Surgery (CMAS).

He gave the students a detailed run-down of the many physiological changes that occur in the body of astronauts in space, and explained the rigorous physical, psychological, technical and scientific training they must go through for many months in preparation for a space mission.

He also explained how some of the experiments being done on NEEMO 9 would hopefully lead to new knowledge on optimum ways for astronauts to prepare for and tolerate future long-haul space missions that could last a year or more.

Dr. Anvari, who heads up CMAS, explained the history of the use of robotics in surgery, and talked about the various experiments he is helping to conduct on Aquarius, by using two-way, high-speed telecommunications links to direct the crew members as they perform complex medical procedures.

The NEEMO missions are helping to discover how complicated medical care can be delivered to astronauts while in space.

While scheduled to only last an hour, the outreach educational event held the interest of students for more than 90 minutes. Williams was forced to end the interactive session after 30 minutes as the crew had to prepare for their next set of experiments.

NEEMO 9 is scheduled to continue until April 20.

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