USF researcher joins NASA mission to bottom of ocean off Florida

Imagine slipping on scuba gear and diving 62 feet below the surface of the ocean to reach the habitat that will be your home for the next nine days.  

Csilla Ari D’Agostino, Ph.D. did just that in June, when she was part of a four-woman crew taking part in a NASA mission at the Aquarius Reef Base, an undersea research station off the coast of Islamorada in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.   

“The base was about the size of a big RV,” says Dr. Ari D’Agostino, a research assistant professor of neurosciences in the Department of Psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

NEEMO 23 crewmembers (from left): Jessica Watkins, Samantha Cristoforetti, Csilla Ari D’Agostino, and Shirley Pomponi.She and crew members Samantha Cristoforetti, the team leader and an astronaut with the Italian European Space Agency; Jessica Watkins, a NASA astronaut candidate, and Shirley Pomponi, a marine biologist at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, were selected to be part of a NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation expedition called NEEMO 23.

They were the first all-women crew to participate in this type of expedition in the last 50 years.

Since 2001, NASA has been sending teams of “aquanauts” on undersea expeditions to Aquarius Reef Base to train astronauts, test devices intended to be used in space, and study the physical and psychological impact of living and working in extreme environments.  

According to NASA, the ocean, like space, can be a hostile, alien environment for people. That makes the ocean the perfect place to prepare for challenges that might be encountered during deep space exploration.

The Aquarius Reef Base is part of the Marine Education and Research Initiative at Florida International University, but it is also the only underwater habitat in the world built to mimic the extreme environmental conditions found in space.  

What was it like to be part of the team?

Although she has been a certified scuba diver since 1998 and has accomplished more than 500 dives, spending so many consecutive days underwater was a first for the USF assistant professor. “It wasn’t unusual for me to be underwater as a diver, but the length of time was unusual,” says Ari D’Agostino.

She and fellow crew members often spent five hours at a time walking on the bottom of the ocean as they completed various tasks. Experiencing a gravity-free environment was fun, she says. But the gear was heavy, especially her helmet, which weighed about 32 pounds.  

“There was a lot of pressure on the neck and back muscles from the dive gear, especially before getting into the water, when trying to hold a heavy helmet against the current at the bottom of the ocean, or just from looking down for long stretches of time when we were involved in a task,” says Ari D’Agostino.

There were other interesting challenges, like the intense, extreme pressure the body experiences living and working at the bottom of the ocean.

“Just as in scuba diving, you do get used to it,” says Ari D’Agostino. “But it affected our hearing. We didn’t hear as well and our voices sounded a little different. We also had a slight loss of taste sensation.”

The habitat had windows looking out into the ocean floor and sunlight was able to penetrate to the ocean floor, but that didn’t mean the crew spent much time contemplating the beauty of marine life.  

“There wasn’t a lot of free time. It was very important to get the science done,” says Ari D’Agostino. “Every single minute was scheduled in advance, and we always had problems come up that pushed those time limits. Then we had to get back on schedule again. We were super busy with one task after another.”  

What type of tasks did they have to accomplish?

Testing and troubleshooting new equipment, such as tools that will be used to collect geological samples in space. The crew experimented with augmented reality glasses used to receive instructions on how to complete certain tasks.  And, they operated electron microscopes that will be sent to the International Space Station.

“We were the first team to use the electron microscope in extreme underwater conditions,” says Ari D’Agostino.  

One of her primary research objectives was to evaluate the psychological and physiological changes that crew members faced living and working in such a high-stress environment. There was the heavy task load, the pressure of the confined space inside the habitat, and daily, simulated gravity-free spacewalks on the ocean floor.

Researchers Csilla Ari D’Agostino and Samantha Cristoforetti leave the Aquarius habitat.Crew members had the added stress of knowing they couldn’t easily return to the surface, similar to the experience astronauts might face on trips to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

“We were looking at both health and psychological changes, such as memory, reaction time, sleep quality, reaction time, vision, dexterity, muscle strength, stress, teamwork, and cognitive ability, as well as heart rate and different markers in the blood related to elevated inflammation and stress hormones from saliva,” says Ari D’Agostino.

In addition, the mission provided the opportunity to evaluate potential changes that might be specific to women, an important consideration as more female astronauts join NASA deep space exploration missions. 

“A big part of the mission was problem-solving,” says Ari D’Agostino. “We had to make time-sensitive decisions with intense consequences.  Things can always go wrong and you have to find a solution. We had to be mentally prepared.”

For example, while walking on the ocean floor, she found a sponge that she wanted to show to the surface crew, who were stationed at Mission Control on Islamorada.

She pointed her helmet camera to the sponge and began describing it to the team at Mission Control, while also staying as still as possible so the image would be clear.  

But the team couldn’t hear her. And since she appeared motionless, they thought something had gone seriously wrong.

“Everyone was freaked out,” says Ari D’Agostino. “The surface team communicated to my crewmate, ‘check on her, it seems like she’s not moving or answering.’

“Eventually we figured out there was a problem with my microphone connection on my helmet. It got fixed and everyone was relieved,” she says.

Mission complete, but what's next?

The NEEMO 23 expedition is now complete, but the work is far from over. She says there’s still a lot of data to analyze, scientific papers to write and results to present at conferences.

Research conducted by Ari D’Agostino and her team will add to the body of knowledge collected during NEEMO 22, a mission to Aquarius in June 2017.

During that expedition, there was an all-male crew that included Ari D’Agostino’s husband, Dominic D’Agostino, an associate professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

While her husband was at the bottom of the ocean, Ari D’Agostino served as a support diver and part of the mission control surface team on Islamorada during NEEMO 22.  

Her husband acted in that same capacity during her dive as part of the NEEMO 23 expedition.

“When I got a phone call saying they wanted me to be part of NEEMO 23 as one of the crew members I was super surprised,” says Ari D’Agostino. “I never thought I would be selected. At first, I was a little unsure about my abilities. But I knew the team that selected me and trusted their decision without question.”

Ari D’Agostino grew up in Hungary and spent summers with her family at the beaches in Bulgaria, Greece, and Croatia. At age 13, she went scuba diving for the first time and was immediately hooked.  

“When I came up from that dive, I said, 'OK, this is what I want' -- to dedicate my life to understanding more about marine creatures,” says Ari D’Agostino. “I started watching documentaries on TV and when I saw a documentary on manta rays, I knew I wanted to study them.”

Today, she is an expert on giant manta rays and is the lead researcher in the Manta Missions project. Her groundbreaking research has demonstrated that manta rays can change their coloration and may have the ability for self-recognition.

But pursuing that career path wasn’t easy. At first, no one in her family took her seriously when she told them her goal of learning more about the ocean environment. Hungary is landlocked and it wasn’t even possible to study marine biology, she says. Instead, she received a master’s degree in zoology and then completed a Ph.D. in neuroscience. In 2010 she came to USF for a post-doctorate position and met her husband. 

Ari D’Agostino continues to specialize in manta ray research, but now she can add one more marine credit to her name: NASA aquanaut.

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.