Jan 112013
 

The Wilmington Star News

Published: Jan. 10, 2013

NASA scientist Emma Hwang, an aquanaut on the NEEMO 5 team aboard the Aquarius research habitat beneath waters off the Florida Keys, watches a school of marine fish on the other side of the habitat’s viewing port. The NEEMO 5 mission was headed toward the final 24 hours of underwater research and evaluation. The crew spent 14 days June 16-29, 2003, in the undersea habitat owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, testing its fidelity as an analog for long-duration space flight.

Editorial: Bidding bon voyage to the sealab Aquarius

UNCW has lost a piece of its marine science program, but research will go on

“UNCW does lose a little of what makes it unique by losing this program.”

– Tom Potts, director,

Aquarius project

And that, quite simply, is a shame.

The marine science programs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington are among the best in the nation, merging cutting-edge research with practical applications. As research tools go, Aquarius is one of a kind, the world’s only undersea lab. But the loss of federal funding has forced UNCW to give up the ship, so to speak.

The good news is that Aquarius’ work will go on, this time under the supervision of Florida International University in Miami.

Last year Aquarius’ owner, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, eliminated its undersea research programs in the face of budget cuts. A scramble to keep the program afloat ensued, but UNCW – which also has taken a big hit in state funding – decided it couldn’t afford to continue operating the yellow submarine, which costs about $3 million a year if money for research projects is included.

Enter FIU, which is in an excellent position geographically to take over the duties of Aquarius and which managed to assemble the funding necessary.

Aquarius has allowed scientists to study changes in the coral reefs off Florida up close. The Navy and NASA also have used the vessel for research. UNCW operated the program for more than 20 years. Now a different university will have the honor of continuing its important underwater research.

Even minus Aquarius, the UNCW marine sciences program will continue to turn out bright, skilled graduates and conduct important research. But it is sad to lose what had become a signature piece of that program.

As difficult as it is to say goodbye, it would have been an even greater loss had the Aquarius program been allowed to die.

 

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