Dawn Kernagis Joins NASA’s Undersea Mission

Dr. Dawn Kernagis, a Research Scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and host of STEM-Talk, has been chosen as one of six crew members to join NASA’s undersea analog mission, NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations).

Dawn KernagisLiving on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the 21st NEEMO crew will focus on evaluating tools and techniques being tested for future space exploration by living in simulated spacecraft conditions and conducting simulated spacewalks outside of their undersea habitat. The NEEMO 21 crew and two professional habitat technicians will live 62 feet (19 meters) below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean at the The Aquarius Undersea Reef Base, owned and operated by Florida International University under permit by NOAA and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Inside the habitat, the international crew will conduct a variety of research and operational studies, such testing a mini DNA sequencer and a medical telemetry device that will be used for future space applications. During their simulated spacewalks, the crew will collect samples for marine biology and geology studies, team with underwater remote operating vehicles, test operational software, and participate in a coral restoration project. Throughout many of these tasks, the mission will also test time delays in communications to simulate scenarios often encountered in space exploration.

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman will command the first 8 days of the NEEMO 21 mission aboard the Aquarius laboratory. Wiseman flew in space as part of Expedition 40/41 in 2014, spending 166 days living and working in the extreme environment of microgravity aboard the International Space Station. Wiseman was a naval aviator and test pilot prior to joining NASA in 2009.

NASA astronaut Megan McArthur Behnken will command the second half of NEEMO 21 and will live in the habitat for the entire 16-day mission. Behnken has served as a Capsule Communicator for both the space shuttle and space station, and she flew on the STS-125 shuttle mission in 2009. Prior to joining NASA, Behnken obtained her PhD in Oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Joining Behnken for the entire 16 days is Matthias Maurer (European Space Agency). For the first 8 days, Marc O’Griofa (Veterans Administration researcher) will also join Wiseman, Behnken, and Maurer. For the second half of the mission, Behnken and Maurer will be joined by Kernagis and Noel Du Toit (Naval Postgraduate School researcher).

Kernagis is thrilled to have the opportunity as a crew member to combine her background as a diver and a biomedical researcher, and she anticipates a very productive and exciting mission. “The NEEMO 21 crew, researchers, and support staff are the best of the best, and I have no doubt that it will be an incredible mission. We will be conducting a wide array of scientific studies and operational evaluations that will provide a tremendous amount of information for future space exploration and research.” In addition to her participation as a crew member, Kernagis will also be conducting a study to investigate changes to the gut bacteria and to human genes in response to living in such an extreme environment. This research is not only of interest for astronaut health and performance, but also for military and commercial divers who live and work for extended periods of time in similar environments.

IHMC CEO and Director Ken Ford commented on Dawn’s exciting opportunity stating that “through her rare combination of technical diving and scholarly research capabilities, Dawn is leading us into a new field of study at the institute, namely the optimization of human performance, resilience and safety in extreme environments.”

At IHMC, Kernagis studies new ways to optimize performance and resilience for humans operating in extreme environments, such as undersea divers, high altitude aviators, and astronauts. She completed her PhD at Duke University, where she received Office of Naval Research funding to study the genetics of decompression sickness in divers. As a postdoctoral researcher at Duke, she received additional ONR funding to study the mechanisms of oxygen toxicity in divers and a Fellowship Award from the American Heart Association for her clinical development of a neuroprotective therapeutic for acute brain injury.

From 1996 – 2007, Kernagis was a diver and manager with the world-record breaking deep underwater cave exploration team; she has been a diver and consultant for numerous diving exploration and research projects around the world since 1996. Based on her career in underwater exploration and research, Kernagis was recently inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, Class of 2016.