Fabien Cousteau, filmmaker, explorer, and grandson of pioneering oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, is set to take a page out of his grandfather’s book by conducting a month-long scientific research mission in the world's only underwater habitat and laboratory. Mission 31 beings on November 12 at the Aquarius Reef Base off the coast of the Florida Keys, marking the 50th anniversary of his the elder Cousteau's historic Conshelf II habitat experiment.

In 1963, Jacques Cousteau established Conshelf II in the Red Sea off the coast of the Sudan. It was the second of the three Conshelf habitats, which were the first serious attempts at creating underwater bases. The effort was funded in part by the French petrochemical industry as a way of developing means to exploit the sea’s resources. The star-shaped Conshelf II sat 10 m (33 ft) under the surface along with an underwater aquarium, a garage for Cousteau’s diving saucer “Denise,” and a deep-water outpost at a depth of 30 m (100 ft).

A team of divers spent 30 days in Conshelf II with a pair of men staying a week in the deep outpost. This was the first time anyone had lived at such a depth for such a time and forged new frontiers in saturation diving. It was the subject of Cousteau’s film World without Sun, which won the 1964 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Mission 31 gets its name from Fabien Cousteau’s goal of having a team of aquanauts spending 31 days in an underwater habitat – one day more than his grandfather's team half a century ago.

The site of Mission 31 is the Aquarius Reef Base located off Conch Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In the 1960s and ‘70s, there were any number of underwater laboratories, but as robotics advanced and underwater physiology was better understood, such habitats became obsolete. Underwater work was taken up by robots, submersibles, and divers who operated out of pressurized diving bells and spent their off-hours in pressurized chambers on the surface before decompressing at the end of their tour of duty. Now, depending on how its defined, Aquarius is the world’s only remaining undersea research lab.

Aquarius was established in 1993 by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In its present location, it sits 20 m (66 ft) under the sea, which is 10 m (33 ft) deeper than Conshelf II, meaning that the aquanauts must dive at a pressure of 2.6 atmospheres. Aquarius is made of three compartments: A main compartment under sea level pressure, an airlock, and a pressurized dive chamber open to the sea. This arrangement allows crews to travel to the surface without decompression, yet still work for hours outside the habitat.

The Aquarius Reef Base (Image: NASA)

For twenty years, Aquarius was used for a rotation of undersea missions lasting for weeks at a time, such as training NASA astronauts and developing engineering concepts. It was supposed to be decommissioned this year when NOAA withdrew funding, but control recently passed to the Florida International University (FIU) School of Environment, Arts and Society, which runs Aquarius through the Aquarius Foundation Inc.

Mission 31 is the most ambitious mission yet for Aquarius. It will last twice as long as any Aquarius mission and aims at testing new technologies, such as autonomous underwater robots, sensor arrays, imaging devices, underwater motorcycles, and Kirby Morgan tech diving helmets. In addition, the aquanauts will do research on the effects of climate change on the life of the coral reef, sea floor mapping, the physiology of long-term submersion in a high-pressure environment without sun, and the effect of long-term confinement on brain function.

Cousteau also sees Mission 31 as a major opportunity for education, so his team will be using the latest camera technology to collect footage for a documentary and possible Imax feature. In a move that would have been impossible on Conshelf II, Mission 31 will provide a continuous video stream in real-time on multiple channels and will use Skype to present free educational talks and live experiences to thousands of school children, who will be able to chat with the aquanauts.

Mission 31 is currently running an Indiegogo campaign through November 8 to raise funds for the nonprofit Aquarius Foundation. According to Cousteau, the mission will cost over a million US dollars, but he also wants to raise a minimum of US$100,000 to offset costs, provide more outreach to classrooms and to turn some of the collected footage into a 3D film.

In the video below, Fabien Cousteau explains the objectives of Mission 31.

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