Aquarius Reef BaseAquarius may be shut down soon, but last June, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger led an 11-day NASA mission on it. Photograph by Jonathan Bird
Her job involves jet packs, Newtsuits, submersibles and a neutral-buoyancy lab. As an educator-astronaut at NASA, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger trains to problem-solve in zero-gravity environments. Her current mission is straight out of a summer blockbuster: By 2025, she and her team will devise a means of landing on an asteroid — possibly to halt its progress toward Earth. More likely, they will collect data from these “resources that can teach us so much about the origins of our solar system,” she says. This past June, she oversaw an 11-day mission in the Aquarius Reef Base, a 62-foot-deep habitat in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Sport Diver: What did the underwater tasks look like?
Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger: We’re figuring out how to stay attached to the asteroid. The Pegasus Thruster jet packs are great for mobility but limiting for tasks: Swing a hammer and the momentum pushes you back. We also worked with submersibles and foot restraints so you stay in one place once you reach a target.
SD: What did you learn from your time at Aquarius?
DML: We found out how to work with a 50-second communication delay, which you have in space. The soonest you get an answer is 100 seconds, so typically you announce to Mission Control that in 10 seconds, you’re about to ask a question.
SD: How big will these asteroids be?
DML: That’s an excellent question.
SD: What’s the funniest part about life in Aquarius?
DML: The wet porch holds the toilet and the shower. It’s also the staging area leading to the ocean. Let’s just say that sometimes your bodily functions don’t sync up with other people’s needs. You just have to communicate and laugh.
SD: How does this mission inspire you?
DML: I was a high school science teacher prior to NASA, but I’m realizing there is still so much I have to learn about asteroids. Each time we met with an expert, I returned to my college textbooks, reading up on asteroids and meteorite impacts. I’m excited, and I hope that as a nation we continue to explore space.