Budget Cuts Threaten Underwater Lab

As the push begins to build an base on the moon, another remote outpost, this one anchored to the ocean floor, faces budget cuts that may leave it gasping for air.

The Aquarius research station, a 400-square-foot capsule that rests 63 feet beneath the surface off the coast of Key Largo, Fla., offers a one-of-a-kind base for marine researchers looking for undiscovered species, evidence of climate change, possible new medical cures and other deep-sea mysteries.

The uniqueness of the project, which is managed by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is that it allows researchers to bypass the many hours it normally takes to acclimate to the high pressure environs of the ocean deep and to readjust to surface air pressure. By living and sleeping in the underwater station, aquanauts can clock in a full day's — or week's — work.

But it may become increasingly difficult to fund the operation, worries Barbara Moore, director of the National Undersea Research Program, or NURP, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that funds the station.

That's because in the budget that President Bush submitted to the Congress for 2005, NURP faces a $1 million cut, on top of a $1.5 million cut from this year's budget.

"I'm worried about it," said Moore. "We're faced with having to make some cuts. Aquarius is an important part of the program, but it's one that we'll have to reconsider in light of the recent cuts."

Defense vs. Oceans vs. Space

It's not just Aquarius that may suffer under budget cuts. Ocean research as a whole is hurting, say marine biologists. And some, including famed diver and biologist Sylvia Earle, have argued it's hard to hear about expensive ventures to space while funds for ocean research dwindle.

"I don't want to cut a penny from space," Earle told The Associated Press recently. "But the resources going into the investigation of our own planet and its oceans are trivial compared to investment looking for water elsewhere in space."

NOAA, the primary agency for ocean research, receives about $3.2 billion annually, compared with NASA's $15.5 billion. In his 2005 budget, President Bush wants to cut 8.4 percent from NOAA's budget while boosting NASA's by 5.6 percent.

"Going to the moon and Mars are spectacular things to do and are important," said Steven Miller, director of the National Undersea Research Center in Key Largo. "But we've really only scratched the surface about what's going on in our own ocean."

Although 75 percent of Earth is covered by ocean, its depths remain vastly unexplored. This is partly because, like space, it's hard to reach.

Innerspace Travel

Because of the tremendous pressure, the depth to which a diver can descend without special equipment is limited. The deepest recorded dive by a skin diver is 417 feet. The deepest recorded dive by a scuba diver is not much farther, at 475 feet. In the 1950s, scientists began plunging to extreme depths in deep sea submersibles. Today, the submersible known as Alvin carries small teams to levels as deep as 6,000 feet.

For those venturing without the protection of a submersible, it can take hours to acclimate to the high pressure environs of the ocean and then more time to surface. Journeying from Aquarius takes about 16 ½ hours to go through decompression — close to the 17 hours required to de-orbit from the space station.

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