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."