Tonight, during our 2000-0400 shift, my watch-mate and I are feeling like Neil Armstrong; walking into the dark to achieve a better knowledge of the unknown. As we approach our next station, the whole ship shakes due to the high winds and waves, as a spacecraft does on its way up, but more harmonically. After all, the Saturn V had a speed of 21,785 knots while ours is 10 knots; and, while it took Neil Armstrong’s spaceship only 3 days to arrive at the moon, we would take 755 days. Anyway, with this shaking one cannot avoid remembering the lyrics of the serenade from the Steve Miller Band: “Did you feel the wind/As it blew all around you”.
Strong gravitational forces can be felt when going down the steep vertical stairs in these waves, where one must be careful not to fall in front of Neil Armstrong’s picture and make a fool of yourself. When we get out to sample, it is as dark and cold as it probably is in space, but here we also have the wet component. The deep ocean, like space, is one of the least explored areas scientifically and, as such, is also a hostile environment for mankind. Around 2500m depth, water temperatures hover around 1ºC and the pressure is enough to convert a foam coffee cup into a little shot glass. Unlocking the mysteries of the ocean requires a big passion for science – as is true for space exploration.
All of a sudden, from the porthole, in the far distance a tiny light appears. It is not a satellite; it shows the position of another ship in this immense solitude of water. It is 0200, and all you can hear is the engine (and some background music in the main lab). We two astronauts of the ocean are launching the rosette into the deep; we also wear a helmet and boots, but instead of a space suit we use a personal floatation device. [The rosette contains a CTD, which is a sensor that measures conductivity (to estimate salinity), temperature and depth; a LADCP that measures the ocean currents using sound (the Doppler effect); and 24 bottles of 12 litters each to capture water at different depth. This collection of instruments is deployed from the surface to 10 m above the bottom, which takes hours to do.] Perhaps our real space suit is the immersion suit (affectionately known as a gumby suit) and is only reserved for ship-evacuation cases – designed to secure survival in this hostile environment.
As morning arrives the vessel’s common areas start to fill with people and the vessel no longer has the lonely feeling of a space craft (luckily!).