Aquarius helps researchers understand life in extreme environments

Written by: Paola Burgos-Carrasquill

For astronauts, space is the most stressful environment they face. What’s not very clear is how our bodies react to living in such extreme environments.

So when NASA astronauts conducted missions at the world’s only undersea laboratory — FIU’s Aquarius Reef Base — researchers jumped at the chance to learn more about the psychological and physiological adaptations of astronauts who lived for weeks at a time 62 feet below the surface.

Given the challenges of this extreme environment, 15 researchers from an international team hypothesized that aquanauts would experience mental difficulties, reduced mood and work satisfaction, an increased alertness to danger, and reduced sleep quality and quantity. They also proposed an increase in heart rate, a decrease in respiratory rate, reduced quality of digestion, high skin temperature, failure to circulate blood properly, and loss in body weight and muscle.

After studying the aquanauts from NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) missions 22 and 23, researchers found just the opposite in many cases.

Even though aquanauts living in a saturated environment for 10 days experienced mental difficulty, they still sustained a good mood and work satisfaction. Unexpectedly, the aquanauts also experienced a decrease in heart rate and breathing rates, increased quality of rest and digestion, reduced alertness to danger, normal blood pressure, and a loss in body weight and muscle. These findings represent innovative insights into how people adapt to living and working underwater, findings that have important implications for future missions to space.

The study, “Human Adaptations to Multiday Saturation on NASA NEEMO,” was published in Frontiers in Physiology.

In part because of the research done at Aquarius, FIU has been ranked No. 11 in the world for positive impact on life below water by The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which assessed universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. To learn more about the research conducted aboard Aquarius, please visit