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.

The parallel hasn't been lost on NASA astronaut trainers. Since 2001, astronauts have tapped the similarities between undersea and space missions by taking training trips to Aquarius under a program called NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations).

"Nowhere else do we get the opportunity to have real astronauts in a real extreme environment doing real scientific research on experiments that haven't gone into space yet," said Bill Todd, a NASA simulations supervisor.

This past summer a crew of two astronauts and two marine biologists spent a record 14 days living in Aquarius, studying coral reefs, eating space food and getting used to the cramped quarters they would also face in orbit.

The NASA program offers about $100,000 to the Aquarius program's $1.3 annual budget. Moore says the money, like other grants from outside organizations, including the Navy, which occasionally uses the lab for training, is helpful, but not adequate to keep the station operating.

"NOAA has been supporting the core of the program. It's like the highway system on which everything works," said Moore. "If the highway goes away, the businesses that operate along the way can't survive either."

She adds that while doing programs like NEEMO may help beef up their budget and increase the visibility of the laboratory, they're not the main focus of the program. At the heart of the Aquarius program lies the ocean — and all its remaining mysteries.

Much Left to Learn

Scientists are still trying to understand how life survive around the extreme hot, dark and acidic conditions of deep sea hydrothermal vents.

Others are investigating gas hydrates — crystalline lattices of gasses and water that remain frozen and stable in the deep ocean with just the right amount of pressure and cold. Could the hydrates, which pack high quantities of the gas, methane, become a new, vital fuel source? And could a gradual warming of the ocean trigger a deadly premature release of the dormant gas?

Miller says "we're not even at the kindergarten stage" when it comes to understanding these kinds of deep sea ecosystems.

And just as NASA scientists are eager to find signs of life on other planets, oceanographers are constantly seeking yet-undiscovered forms of life in the ocean.

Miller points out that finding new species is not just about discovery, it also holds promise for developing new drugs. Chemicals extracted from a number of ocean microorganisms have already been shown to fight cancer, kill pathogens and ease pain.

Just over two years ago, oceanographers in a deep sea submersible spotted a creature that almost defied description. The spindly squid-like animal was more than 20 feet long, had 10 limbs that drape from its crown like puppet strings and it swam by flapping two huge fins above its head.

"If we find things like that, what else is there?" said Moore. "I have no doubt there are all kinds of creatures down there we haven't seen before."