NOAA 2000-R508
Contact: Jana Goldman


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aquarius, the world's only underwater laboratory/habitat that makes it possible for scientists to live and work beneath the sea, will begin its 2000 mission season as part of the educational JASON XI project.

From Feb. 28 through March 10, Dr. Robert Ballard and other scientists will explore "Going to Extremes," showing students what it is like to live and work in space and underwater. Former NOAA Chief Scientist Kathy Sullivan will participate. She brings a unique perspective, having spent time in both environments. A former astronaut, in 1984 she was the first American woman to perform a space walk.

"The JASON project gives us an opportunity to share Aquarius' work exploring the condition of our coral reefs with students in classrooms across the country," said Dr. Steven Miller, director of the Southeastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico National Underwater Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which operates Aquarius.

During daily one-hour broadcasts students participating in the project will assist scientists who will collect data about the condition of corals at Conch Reef, where Aquarius is located, about 50 feet below the water's surface. Five live broadcasts will occur each day during the two weeks of the JASON project.

"Students will be able to see how humans can explore extreme environments and what kinds of technologies were developed to help overcome the physical limitations, such as breathing underwater to explore the reef and also to conduct experiments and to live underwater in Aquarius," Miller said.

Scientists working from the surface are able to use conventional Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus gear, but that only allows a limited time to work. Also, the danger of decompression sickness, what divers call "the bends," is very real.

"However, Aquarius allows scientists to avoid that problem using what's called ‘saturation diving' so they can work for longer periods of time - up to nine hours a day in depths to more than 30 meters. When the mission is through, the scientists undergo a 17-hour decompression process that allows them to return safely to the surface," Miller explained.

Additional missions planned for 2000 address deep coral reef assessment and monitoring, two missions related to coral physiology, water quality and pollution, and growth of seaweeds on the reef.