USF professor joins undersea NASA trek

Dominic D’Agostino, right, and his wife, Csilla Ari D’Agostino, will take part in a 10-day NASA mission at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, 6 miles from Key Largo’s coast.
Dominic D’Agostino, right, and his wife, Csilla Ari D’Agostino, will take part in a 10-day NASA mission at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, 6 miles from Key Largo’s coast.
Published June 10, 2017

TAMPA — He's not allowed to bring his hair dryer, popcorn or his snack of choice: sardines.

But when spending 10 days at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, trapped inside a facility he likens to a "30-foot RV with an unusually small bathroom," Dominic D'Agostino said it's best that the only sardines aboard are the six members of his crew: astronauts and researchers with NASA and the European Space Agency.

Their assignment, the 22nd NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO expedition, will take them 6 miles off the coast of Key Largo and 60 feet below the ocean's surface to an underwater research laboratory called the Aquarius. It's the closest astronauts can get to experiencing the conditions they'll face on the surface of Mars, the moon or a deep-space asteroid without leaving Earth, he said.

D'Agostino, a professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology at the University of South Florida's Hyperbaric Biomedical Research Laboratory, is the only crew member not employed by a space agency program. He's joining the mission to research how astronauts' diets could help them endure the extreme environments they visit on space missions.

"I'm extremely humbled, nervous in some ways, but mainly just excited and amazed to be a part of research that we could see applied to deep space missions that start taking off within the decade," D'Agostino said. "The moon missions sparked the most intense period of science and development the U.S. has ever seen, and I absolutely think we're about to get back to that. It gives me goosebumps."

Starting June 18, the crew will spend 10 days simulating space walks, studying how coral and other organisms survive the harsh conditions, and testing new technologies. Those include a drill that could be used to collect samples from the martian surface and equipment to help evacuate injured crew members during a space walk.

In addition to the NASA work D'Agostino will perform, he will also test whether his nutritional supplement is a good fit for the space program. While the rest of the crew will eat the traditional dehydrated, vacuumed packed "camping food" currently taken on space missions, D'Agostino will drink a powdered formula developed at USF, that fuels the body by burning fat instead of glucose in a metabolic state called "ketosis."

"It's like a super-advanced version of Tang that gives our body ketones, which is a superior source of energy that can enhance our mental function and protection from extreme environments," D'Agostino said.

As in space, all communications to mission control will be delayed by about 10 minutes, and if something goes wrong and the crew is forced to evacuate, the process required to pressurize their bodies will take about 19 hours.

Apart from some "funky skin lesions" a crew developed several years ago, D'Agostino says nothing has ever gone horribly wrong in past missions.

Still, it helps that he'll be in regular contact with his wife, USF cognitive neuroscientist Csilla Ari D'Agostino. In addition to serving as the support diver for the mission, which means brief dives down to Aquarius to deliver supplies to her husband, Csilla Ari D'Agostino's research team also will study the crew's mental and physical reactions to the many stresses they'll encounter, such as carbon dioxide levels as high as 20 times what they experience on earth.

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"The gases they breath in, that get absorbed into their blood, can have extreme effects on their physiology and cognitive functions, especially in tight living quarters," she said.

The crew's schedule is designed to be "task loaded" and test the crew's sleep habits as well as changes in sensory processing speed, problem solving and memory. It will be challenging, but will also prevent boredom.

"Free time will be very limited, so it's almost like a day at work," Dominic D'Agostino said. "When we do have some time to breathe, the view from the office should be really incredible, just giant manta rays or barracudas swimming by."

The couple got to meet other crew members for several days of training at NASA facilities in Houston, and D'Agostino said he feels confident they can get along for at least 10 days.

"Dominic doesn't snore, but who knows if any of the others do," Csilla D'Agostino said. "More than anything, I think he'll just have fun. It's like a dream."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.