Astronauts are forced to work in zero gravity — and they need to know how to function quickly and efficiently, despite the fact they aren’t moving as they do on Earth. Luckily, NASA has figured out a way to recreate this otherworldly environment right here on Earth. The New York Times reports that a crew of six astronauts recently descended to Aquarius, an undersea laboratory next to a coral reef about three miles off Key Largo. 

The lab, 65 feet below the surface, is known as Extreme Environment Mission Operations — or simply, Neemo. It is a nine-year program, but this is the 14th time astronauts have descended into the Atlantic. While living in the laboratory for two weeks, the “aquanauts” will operate machinery and go on simulated spacewalks, much as they would if they were setting up on another planet. The purpose is to aid in future planetary exploration. William Todd is the project manager for the Neemo 14 mission. As he told the New York Times, “The primary objectives are based on engineering and testing and operations design for planetary exploration.”

By simply manipulating their suits, the aquanauts can feel as if they are working in one-sixth gravity of the moon or the three-eighths the gravity of Mars. They also have a 20 minute delay in their communications with mission control up on the surface. This is to mimic the wait they would have if they were working on Mars. Further, the messages are written. NASA has determined that written messages work best for detailed information transfer, as it cuts down on the risk of misinterpretation.

The aquanauts will also learn how to best aid an injured comrade in space. According to Todd, “We’re going to have a lander and a rover and ways to get off those landers and ways to deal with incapacitated crewmen regardless of the destination. We have to understand how to operate in those environments.”

This mission comes at a time when NASA has cancelled plans for Constellation, the plan to put people back up on the moon. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, is expected to testify in Congress against the cancellation of Constellation.

For further reading:

Astronauts work in space, or 65 feet underwater
NASA recreates conditions of the Moon or Mars in an underwater lab.