Categories: cultureeducationQ&A

Life Underwater, A Conversation with IHMC’s Dr. Dawn Kernagis

by Jeremy Morrison

Soaking in sunlight, Dr. Dawn Kernagis sat in a faded Pink Floyd T-shirt sipping coffee. She cracked an early-morning smile and thought back to another place, another world. A world where whistling was impossible and mistakes could be fatal.

It was the greatest experience of her life.

“Being able to live underwater,” Kernagis explained, “I didn’t want to come up.”

Kernagis is a research scientist with the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Pensacola. Her work focuses on human performance in extreme environments. In another life she helped explore and map underwater cave systems as part of the Woodville Karst Plain Project, which provided insight into Florida’s maze of submerged subterranean limestone caverns.

This past summer Kernagis spent a couple of weeks living 62 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as part of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project. A few months prior to that, she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

Recently, the local researcher sat down for a conversation about her experience participating in NASA’s space-simulation project, as well as her Hall of Fame induction, cave diving ventures and childhood spent dreaming about the likes of Jaques Cousteau and Sylvia Earle.

The NEEMO crew outside Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base, a submerged habitat research laboratory in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (photo/NASA)


SANDS: If you could just maybe start out by explaining a little bit about this project, and maybe more than that, how cool it was for you on both a personal and professional level.

DR. DAWN KERNAGIS:  So, NEEMO is NASA’s undersea mission. They’ve been running it since 2000, one to two missions a year, so this is actually the 21st mission that they’ve successfully run. They use NEEMO as a testbed, for testing out technology, either software or hardware that they’re either updating or that has been developed for space explorations, space operations. And they also use it to test out procedures, and kind of as a training ground too,for the incoming astronauts, or even current astronauts, who are looking towards leadership positions within NASA. And embedded in that they bring in — just to make things interesting — they bring in scientists and engineers to live with the astronauts. And the scientists and engineers that they bring in as crew members are typically running their own projects as well, in addition to being a crew member. So, for this mission we had three astronauts and we had three scientists. Each of the scientists, we each had our own projects running in conjunction with the mission. So, that’s just kind of an overview of NASA — what’s really interesting about NEEMO, both of the astronauts I was working with, both of them have been to space. And they were our commanders for the mission, so they traded off. So, Reid Wiseman was a commander for the first half of the mission, and Megan Behnken was the commander for the second half. And Reid was on the International Space Station back in 2014 for six months, and he was a former Navy pilot, so he actually has ties here in Pensacola, he did his training here in Pensacola, loves it here, and still has a lot of friends and colleagues that are in this area. And then Megan was a shuttle astronaut, so she was on the STS125 crew, so they were actually one of the Hubble repair missions. What was interesting talking to them, they said that for all of the different analog missions that are out there, they felt that this was incredibly relevant to space training and to operational training and even team training. As far as analog, as space analog goes.

SANDS: This specific — the 21st project, or the NEEMO thing overall?

Dr. Dawn Kernagis during the 2016 NEEMO mission. (photo/NASA)

KERNAGIS: NEEMO in general. Because you’re living and working in an extreme environment. Some of the other analogs they’ll simulate different things. So, some of them are isolation, some of them are living in close quarters, you know, that kind of thing.
So, they felt like this was very analogous with working and living in space. One, you go outside you’re in microgravity, or simulated microgravity, it’s like microgravity, being in the water. But you’re living and working in an extreme environment where you’re constantly under the knowledge that the decisions that you’re making could impact you or your teammates in a very life, what am I trying to say, not life-threatening, but essentially you’re always at risk, you’re always at risk living in that environment or working in that environment.
For us, we’re in a habitat. Anything could happen in a habitat where there’s an emergency. It would be a serious emergency if we had to leave the habitat, because we were living in saturation. That meant that we couldn’t go straight to the surface, so anything that happened was going to have to be able to be handled underwater. So you kind of had that overhead the entire mission, that you’re constantly having to que in to your situational awareness and stay on top of the fact that, you know, remembering that you’re working and living in this environment that could have detrimental effects if you make a mistake. For you or your team.

SANDS: For decompression reasons?

KERNAGIS: For decompression reasons and just, you know, you’re out in the water, so even when we’re doing our simulated space walks — water walks, ocean walks — we’re doing, it’s called extra-vehicular activities, so it’s just like a space walk, but for us we’re out doing these walks on the ocean floor working outside of the habitat. You’re wearing your life support equipment that’s keeping you alive and so if something happens to that equipment you have to think about how you’re going to handle it, you’re always having to kind of keep that in the back of your mind, that you can’t just take off your helmet and breathe air. So you kind of have to pay attention to those details, along with the fact that you’re testing out all this stuff that’s relevant to being in space, if that makes sense.

SANDS: Yeah.

KERNAGIS: Personally, hands-down the best experience of my life. I’ve worked on a lot of different research projects and exploration projects around the world and all of them have been fantastic, I’m not putting them down in any way shape or form. But just the operation tempo, working with professionals, we had over 70 people involved in the mission. Not just the crew, but we had dive support and safety, we had mission control that they put together there, we had all the administration and then the research staff. So, I will say that it was the most professional team that I’ve ever worked with in an operational environment. And just friendships for life, for sure, across the entire team, it was just fantastic. Being able to live underwater. I didn’t want to come up. I love Pensacola, and I love my job at IHMC, but it was really hard to leave that habitat, it was really hard for all of us to leave the habitat actually.

SANDS: Really?

KERNAGIS: It was just so beautiful. Just to sit and have your breakfast and look out and you have fish swimming by you and, you know, just kind of being part of the ocean. Especially at night time when nothing else was around, pitch black, and just seeing what’s going on out there.
Professionally, same thing, it was absolutely the best experience. I think, one, it gave me the opportunity to work in —it gave me the opportunity to tie together different components of my career, my life’s career.
So, I’ve kind of had two different careers. Prior to getting into research I was a professional diver. I worked within the diving community. Worked for a technical and cave diving training organization. And we had projects — actually the organization itself is a spinoff of a project I worked on for over a decade. So, that was kind of part of my life. I was working in this operational environment, always working on field projects, working in a team environment. And then I moved into doing research, which is very different. You’re working in the laboratory, a lot of the work you do is solo. I mean, you still work in a collaborative way, but it’s not the same as being in an operational environment. So, being able to go to NEEMO and tie those two things together, that was just fantastic. I was able to be a scientist sometimes and then I was able to be the diver that I’ve always been, or have been since I was 15, the rest of the time. And to work with people who all have a similar mindset, have similar kind of backgrounds with respect to having multi-discipline backgrounds. So it was just fantastic.

Kernagis (second from left) with her fellow NEEMO aquanauts. (photo/NASA)

SANDS: What kind of stuff were you personally — each person had their mission down there, what were you doing down there?

KERNAGIS: My project was looking at changes in how our genes are expressed living in that environment. So, we’re breathing high-pressure oxygen and going into saturation like I was talking about. It’s just a different environment altogether, obviously, from you and I sitting here at this table. And they’re other changes. The food that you eat is different, you know, the sleep cycle is a little bit different, you’re not getting vitamin D, just little things like that that probably have a cumulative effect on how our genes are expressed and changes to how our genes are expressed. It’s called epigenetics. So, I was looking for epigenetic changes in response to living in that environment. And I was also looking to see how our gut —

SANDS: Epi — how do you spell that?

KERNAGIS: E-p-i and then genetics.


KERNAGIS: — I was looking to changes to our gut bacteria before and after, and there’s probably a lot of different factors that would impact our gut bacteria. Like I said, we ate very different food down there compared to what we’d eat up here. So, that probably has a huge impact, but also just living in that environment, too.

SANDS: Why did you eat different food down there, was it a logistical reason or —

KERNAGIS: Yeah, so essentially we — one, fresh food tends to go bad pretty quickly, because of the high-pressure oxygen. It’s what we call an oxidated stress environment, so food tends to just go bad faster. And we didn’t have a cold refrigerator, we had a, I guess what you’d call a cold box, it’s kind of like a warm refrigerator, essentially. You can keep apples, lettuce for a short period of time, carrots, stuff like that. But stuff you’d want to eat pretty quickly because it went bad fast. Other than that everything else for the most part that we ate down there was camping food. We didn’t have a stovetop, we didn’t have a high-powered microwave. We had a very low-powered microwave, and we had hot water. We had instant hot water, which is nice.

SANDS: So, obviously your results aren’t back yet, but what kind of changes does a body go through?

KERNAGIS: Previous studies —  so, the Navy and commercial diving operations, they use saturation diving all the time and have for a long time.

SANDS: And define saturation diving.

KERNAGIS: Saturation diving means that your tissues are saturated with, in this case, nitrogen, an inert gas. So, we use the oxygen, but the inert gas that we are not using gets taken up by our blood and tissues the deeper we go and the longer we stay at depth — up to a certain point, there’s a point where you’re kind of maxed out, where your tissue is saturated, completely soaked with nitrogen, you really can’t take up anymore. So, we were in saturation. After about 24 hours is when they say we’re at saturation at that depth. The reason that military and commercial divers use it is because you can go into saturation and then from that point on when you go out to do dives at that depth you don’t have to worry about decompressing. So, like, typical scuba divers will come up really slow to minimize risk of getting the bends.

SANDS: Yeah.

KERNAGIS: That’s just that gas that’s in your blood and tissues coming back out. So, essentially think of it as kind of like a soda bottle and if you release that cap on that soda bottle slowly then you don’t get a lot of bubbles, but if you release it really fast you get a lot of bubbles. In saturation diving, at least during the operational aspect of it, as long as you stay at the depth that you’re saturated at or go deeper then you don’t have to worry about decompressing during that time. So there’s no time limitation on the excursions that you’re doing, there’s —

SANDS: And do people, like the military, do they do this for days on end?

KERNAGIS: Yeah, they do the same thing. So they do these saturation exposures all the time actually for operational purposes. And commercial divers in particular do very deep saturation dives.

SANDS: Have living quarters and everything down there?

KERNAGIS: Yeah, yeah. So, even like the oil rigs, the commercial divers working the oil rigs, they’ll use saturation all the time. It’s just safer that way, than trying to bounce up and down, especially for the depths that they’re working at.
So, we were in saturation — the thing that I was talking about, kind of that danger of decompression sickness is that because you’re so saturated, you have so much nitrogen in you, if you go straight to the surface you’re going to have a lot of bubbles coming out of the solution really fast and could risk getting pretty bad decompression sickness, actually probably fatal.
The Navy [and] other researchers have done studies on saturation divers in the past, because it is kind of one of their primary modes of operational diving. And they haven’t looked at epigenetic changes, this is the first time anybody’s looked at that in diving per se, but they have looked at immune response and, you know, coagulation response, how the blood clots, and there are changes to the immune system and there are changes to the coagulation system. They think it might be an adaptive response in the body, just dealing with this kind of new stress and its response to stress. But beyond that we don’t really know, we really don’t know on the gene level what happens in that environment. This is just kind of a first step.

SANDS: Do you have any guesses?

KERNAGIS: I’m guessing that there will be changes. Just based off of — I mean, we know that in regular scuba divers, so just in your typical recreational scuba diver who goes and does multiple dives, your body goes through this adaptive response and it seems to kind of have its protective adaptation with multiple dives. At the immune level, with respect to protecting against decompression sickness or other stressors that you experience during diving.

SANDS: You build up a tolerance almost?

KERNAGIS: Kind of like a tolerance, yeah. So, we think we’ll see something there and especially since there’s so many — like I said, there’s a lack of Vitamin D, there’s changes in diet, there’s a lot of stuff, so I expect to see changes probably in respect to immune response or stress response. The nice thing is the technology that we’re using allows us to take kind of a global look at everything and get a big picture look at what’s changing in response to living in that environment. Kind of an unbiased approach to looking at what’s happening.

SANDS: And what were some of the other people down there doing?

KERNAGIS: So, the two other researchers that were down there — there’s Mark OGriofa, who is from Ireland and he’s a physician, and he had a couple of studies. One was actually in conjunction with my study, so we’re collecting samples at the same time so that we didn’t drive our crew mates crazy sticking them multiple times with needles. He got blood samples, we got cheek-swab samples and we got saliva samples for our studies. And this is before, during and after the mission. And he is looking at changes in telomeres.

SANDS: Do what now?

KERNAGIS: Telomeres. So, T-e-l-o-m-e-r-e. Those are just the caps at the end of our chromosomes. And so what’s interesting is that we’re learning as we age our telomeres shorten, and they think that it kind of cuts off the cells’ capability to replicate the shorter that they get. And so one of the things that they’re looking at, that the biomedical community is looking at is ‘Can you regenerate these telomeres? Can you relengthen them?’ And so he’s looking at, one, do telomeres shorten in response to living in that environment, that high stress environment? And, two, they have technology, this company that he’s working with, that right now when they take cells that are in culture — so this isn’t in humans or animals yet — that they can actually apply this technology and relengthen telomeres that have been shortened. And so it’s kind of a two step process. One, they’re looking to see, did the telomeres shorten and, two, if they apply this technology to blood samples that were collected — to the cells that have been collected from us, so it’s not actually us, you know, they’re not giving it to us in our bodies, they’re just blood samples that they collected from us — and they apply this technology, can they relengthen these telomeres. So they have found that the telomeres do shorten, and that was kind of the preliminary results of that part of it so far, but I don’t know about the next step. And then he was also looking at medical telemetry systems. So this is [reading] medical data from you, and it can be relayed to a surface team. And so NASA is interested in those for being able to relay medical information back to a medical crew at mission control. So, we were doing blood pressure, oxygen saturation, weights and hydration levels, which is kind of a new technology too. All that information, and we were doing that twice a day, all the crew members, and that was being relayed back to a medical team that was assessing this and just getting it — it wasn’t so much for the assessment per se, for us, but just how well did the data come through and then they take that data and give information, feedback, to the crew members. That was his project.
Then, my other research crew member, Noel Du Toit, and he is a — he was, he actually just changed positions — he was a researcher at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey.  He’s actually from South Africa, so we had this great international crew, which was pretty unique for this mission. So, he was looking at underwater robots and he’s been working with NEEMO — both Mark and Noel have actually done research in the past with previous NEEMO missions, as researchers, not as crew members, so they got to be crew members this time around. And he was testing out this underwater robot that’s kind of interacting with the divers while they’re underwater, and looking at those interactions.

SANDS: What was it like, just living under water? I kind of imagine it was like living in Atlantis —

KERNAGIS: Yeah, the habitat itself was really comfortable actually. It was dry, it was pretty cool. You know, it was small living quarters, but comfortable, so I mean there were six of us in there and —

SANDS: How big? Are we talking, like, an apartment-size —

KERNAGIS: Yeah, no, it was about the size of a, what do you call it, an Airstream.


Kernagis, along with other members of the NEEMO team, inside their underwater habitat. (photo/NASA)

KERNAGIS: So, pretty narrow, long. With bunks. There were three bunks — I’ll send you a video of it just so you can see, it’s a really good video tour of one of the previous missions of the habitat. But, essentially three bunks on either side at the bow end and, you know, pretty tight living quarters, but like I said it was comfortable. We were all busy, all day long. One of the things with these missions, like I say, they want to simulate as close to a space mission as possible, so international space station astronauts all have their days scheduled pretty much from wake to sleep, and so they did the same thing with us, using the same software, using the same scheduling software, it’s called Playbook. So, essentially we’d wake up at 6 a.m., and from 7 a.m. to about 8 p.m. our day was scheduled, they had our full day scheduled. And then we got an hour before bed time. But they had us packed. We had about a dozen and a half research objectives during the mission that we were — some of them were everyday, some of them were a few days a week, you know, during the mission, and some of them were just once or twice that we had to do it, but it kept us all very busy. So, if we weren’t outside, diving outside of the habitat, then we were inside working on one of these other objectives. We’ve got all these objectives going on, so one of the things that the mission control and the Playbook group did was schedule these objectives out so that we could accomplish them without running over each other inside that small space. They actually did a really good job. So, living space and habitat were comfortable.
It was interesting, you could feel the pressure a little bit, the air was a little bit denser, you know, so your voice is higher, that’s one thing you have to get use to. I got use to it pretty quick.

SANDS: Like, Mickey-Mouse high or just slightly higher?

KERNAGIS: No, just slightly higher. Just enough. You can’t whistle.

SANDS: Oh yeah?

KERNAGIS: Because the air is dense, you can’t whistle. And you could feel it, every once in a while you could kind of feel it. It was like the air was just a little denser, so it was like scuba diving.

SANDS: Was it laborious breathing, or no, you didn’t notice —

KERNAGIS: No, you didn’t really notice it. I mean, it was just enough that you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s different.’ You know, when you’re laying there at night, the first night I noticed it, laying in bed I was like, ‘Oh, this feels a little different.’ But then after that you didn’t really pay much attention.
Going outside the habitat was fantastic. We wore diving helmets, so these full commercial diving helmets with umbilicals, hoses that supplied air, and they went back to the habitat. And so instead of using regular scuba, we were locked in, just like commercial divers do, or military divers do in saturation, so we had a continuous, endless air supply. The other reason for that is communication. We had real time communication with each other in the helmet, and also with habitat, with the crew that was inside the habitat that was monitoring what we were doing, so it was just like in space, when they do a space walk. It’s the same thing, the astronauts will have real time communication with each other, with the person that’s back in the space station that’s kind of running everything and kind of overseeing their spacewalk, and then mission control, so they also have communication with mission control. After the first few days they induce a time delay in our communications with mission control and with the science teams because they want to simulate long-duration space missions when you’re not going to have that real time feedback from mission control. Which made —

SANDS: How much of a time delay?

KERNAGIS: Fifteen minutes each way.

SANDS: Oh, really?

KERNAGIS: Yeah, which makes things interesting when you’re trying to make decisions about what should be done next and, you know, like samples to be collected, or whatever it might be, especially when it came to the science objectives.


KERNAGIS: So, we walked on the bottom. Again, for normal scuba divers it’s not a normal thing, you’re told to stay completely off the bottom, and it’s kind of drilled into your head as a normal scuba diver. But they want to simulate walking on a planet, so we’re simulating  partial microgravity, so we’re able to walk on the bottom, but just kind of like lighter steps. It was really interesting, and actually a lot of fun.


SANDS: What do y’all wear down there? Is it your traditional flippers and wetsuits?

KERNAGIS: No, no fins because we’re walking. A wetsuit, boots, gloves, and then the helmet. And then we’ve got a vest that had a backup tank so just in case something were to happen to your line, your air supply, that was a backup to get you back to a certain point, so we’d always wear that as an emergency. All saturation divers do that — or, surface-supply divers, sorry, do that.

SANDS: Did y’all have any incidents?

KERNAGIS: No. Very safe, very comfortable. We spent a week training on all of this before we started the mission. We did a week of training in Houston at Johnson Space Center and then we did a week of training down there with their equipment, habitat, different research protocols, just because we had so many, but that’s typical. They’ll run us through all the different equipment we’re using, and the objectives and how to run through the different experiments that we were doing.
So, it was really cool to be able to walk on the bottom, to talk to each other, just something different, it was a very different feel than typical scuba diving.

SANDS: How did you pass those 15 minute intervals? Did y’all have casual conversation down there?

KERNAGIS: Yeah, no, we kept working. You decide ahead of time who’s making your call if you can’t get feedback and you know who makes that call to make the next step and we’re constantly — if we’re waiting for information to come back from them that we needed, then we would move on to the next task, or move on to sample something else, or just kind of keep going, go on to the next extra-vehicular activity. The oceanwalks, I guess you’d call it, they were anywhere from four to 51/2 hours in length.



KERNAGIS: Typically, they were scheduled for four hours, but if we’re doing well and we were getting a lot done then typically they’d extend it, to give them more time.

SANDS: And there’s no, you’re saying there’s no time limit?

KERNAGIS: There’s no time limit insofar as decompression goes, or air. It was more of just a fatigue thing than anything else, because you do get a little tired towards the end. Actually, more than anything, mentally tired. And the equipment is really heavy, the helmet is really heavy, all of that. But a big part of it too is you’re on, like full-on, when you’re out there and you’re constantly communicating with different entities and making decisions and sampling and working and everything else, so you’re definitely tired by the end of the spacewalk. And they say that a spacewalk, an actual spacewalk, it’s so much — it’s that times, you know, fifty or a hundred, so you’re just absolutely exhausted by the end of it. But it was really interesting.
So, that kind of kept us on our — you have to stay on your toes during the entire time, the entire time you’re doing that. So, you can’t get complacent, you have to constantly be thinking about where your buddy is, where your umbilical is running so you don’t smash a bunch of coral or anything. You have support divers there in the water to help keep an eye on our umbilicals to make sure we don’t wrap around coral or get into a dangerous situation, so that was good. But, yeah, it was really fun.

SANDS: That’s awesome. What’d you do for that hour at night that they gave you for down time?

KERNAGIS: Yeah, so as long as you stayed ahead, and everybody was pretty good about staying on top of their schedule — so, what was interesting is, you had a red line that you followed in your timeline during the day, and so what you wanted to do, and same with the astronauts, is everyday when they’re in the space station, except that they usually get one day off a week, you’re constantly living by that red line, you’re constantly living off the schedule. And so once you’re off of that redline and you’ve got everything accomplished, it’s kind of your treat at the end of the day. Usually what we’d do is you’d just sit at the kitchen window, at the galley window, there’s this huge window there, and just watch the nightlife and sit and talk. And sometimes we’d play cards. I was working on a blog while I was down there, bits and pieces when I could and I had the time to do it. We would send emails to our family. A lot of crew members would Skype call their families, so they had the internet down there, so they had Skype. It was sometimes pretty broken if the weather was bad, but they would Skype call their families and talk to them, which was good.

SANDS: Do you mind if we dive into your other stuff?

KERNAGIS: So-to-speak.

SANDS: Yeah, so-to-speak. The Hall of Fame, that’s kind of a big deal, right?

KERNAGIS: Yeah, it was a huge honor. The women that are in there, some of them I have looked up to since I was a little girl and before I was even scuba certified. Zale Parry from “Seahunt,” Sylvia Earle, there’s some pretty big names in there. And I got to meet them actually during the induction ceremony. It was just — I was a kid in a candy store, it was pretty cool.

SANDS: Where is that?

KERNAGIS: The induction was up in New Jersey. They hold it every year at a dive show called Beneath the Sea. They kind of developed this partnership with Beneath the Sea, so they hold the big ceremony there every year.

SANDS: Tell me about your work with cave diving.

KERNAGIS: Yeah, I worked with a project called the Woodville Karst Plain Project. They did exploration and research of the underwater cave system south of Tallahassee, around Wakulla Springs. Wakulla Springs and some of the surrounding cave systems. I worked with them from ’96 to about 2007. And I came in as a support diver. I actually came in, like — the way that the system works is you come in, you show up, you carry tanks, you carry equipment, and you start working your way up through the system essentially. Start diving with other team members, and if they feel like you’re good enough then you can move up to the next level and the next level and just keep doing bigger dives. So, I started working with them and somehow ended up, like 97-ish or so, 98, they put me in charge of one of the dives because they’re like — they handed what we call the clipboard over. The clipboard is for whoever’s in charge of running everything. And they said, ‘You know, you’d probably do a good job,’ and then I ended up doing well enough that I ended up doing that for the better part of a decade.


KERNAGIS: But it was a great opportunity. I got a chance to dive other sites, but whenever we were at Wakulla Springs, I was the dive operations manager. So, I was the person making all the decisions for all of the dives.

SANDS: And talk a little about cave diving, I mean, that’s hardcore stuff.


SANDS: What’s that like?

KERNAGIS: It’s amazing. So, I got into it when I was 16. I came down to do a dive at Ginnie Springs, which is outside of Gainesville, Fla., and I was living in North Carolina at the time, but every few months our dive shop would come down and do a springs trip, do just basic scuba diving in springs. And in Ginnie Springs there’s a big cavern where you can swim in even if you’re not cave certified, they have it kind of walled off, grated off. So, I went in there and I kept looking past the grate and I was like, ‘I want to know what’s back there.’ So, I talked to my parents about becoming cave-trained, and they talked to my instructors and everything and they agreed, and so when I was 16 I started doing my cave training. And cave diving itself is just fantastic. You know, especially the springs here in Florida, we’re so lucky to have the resources that we do. Crystal clear water, white limestone walls — or dark, it depends on where you are in Florida — but just going around the next corner and just have these naturally made mazes, you know, and kind of finding your way through them. Seeing what’s around that next corner is just fantastic.

SANDS: No fear comes into play for you?

KERNAGIS: No, I mean, I think a big part of it is training is essential. So, it’s never, ever, ever been an adrenaline rush. It should not be an adrenaline rush.
It’s funny, I talk to people and they’re like, ‘You don’t want to skydive?’ I have no desire to ever skydive. Like, no desire to skydive. I mean, if I had to do it for something I would do it, but it’s just not something I’m craving to do. I’m as far from an adrenaline junkie as you can get. One of the things I love about cave diving, too, is all the planning that goes into it, and the execution of that plan and just all those elements that make it come together to be as safe as possible.
If you come out from a cave dive and you’re like, ‘Whoa, just barely survived that one,’ then that’s not good, that’s not where you should be. A big part of the cave diving is you going through the proper training. And it’s actually a pretty safe sport if you go through the right training. This is cavern training, cave training, which is pretty extensive. They run you through a lot of drills. And then also the proper equipment, and learning how to use that equipment and how to use it in an emergency situation.

SANDS: As a kid, why did you get into this? Why did you decide to take that route?

KERNAGIS: When I was nine we had moved to North Carolina and we went down to the coast. I’d been to the beach before, but I guess I was old enough to really, really appreciate it. So, I was down at the coast and I told my parents, I want to be a marine biologist when I grow up.
And so I started collecting whatever information I could. I begged my parents to get me the Jacques Cousteau “Ocean World” and dolphin books for Christmas and they did. And I carried those books around with me everywhere. They’re heavy, by the way. I carried them around with me when I was, like, in 5th grade, so I was a total dork. But I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I started reading scuba diving magazines and just kind of started soaking it up. And, unfortunately, at the time I could have been certified when I was 12, if one of my parents had done it with me, but both of my parents were working so much there was no way they could work it out. So, when I was 15 —

SANDS: They weren’t into diving?

KERNAGIS: They were not into diving. My dad was stationed in Midway Island and did free diving as a Marine, when he was there, but yeah neither of them had diving backgrounds. But they fully supported me, which was — I’m so thankful for.
So, yeah, I got certified when I was 15 and immediately started working at the local dive shop. Filling tanks, helping with customers, anything that they needed, essentially, at that point, I was just helping teach classes, really just sitting in as the extra person to carry whatever. I just — yeah, I just wanted to be in the water as much as possible and be around that community as much as possible. So I pretty much grew up in the diving community. That was my family growing up, my second family.

SANDS: So, from a kid, kind of dreaming about this, through what has to be considered a fairly badass career, this NASA thing — where do you go from that?

KERNAGIS: That’s a good question. I mean, right now I’m trying to build my research program here at IHMC. I came here back in May of 2015, so I’ve been here just over a year and a few months I guess, so I’m trying to build up my research program and focus on human performance in these extreme environments. We’re getting funding in right now, which is great, so I’m starting to kind of build that program. The next step is to bring in funding to bring in other researchers and to bring in, you know, students, or post-docs who can work with me on some of these projects. That’s kind of the next direction.
And then I’ll just keep diving whenever I can. Mostly for the fun of it.
You know, I talked with — the NEEMO crew I know talked about working with NEEMO down the line as kind of a testbed for other stuff that we want to do on the human side of things and we’ll always have that kind of collaboration that I have with them, which is great. I will say, I won’t be a crew member. Typically, they have crew members come in once and that’s it.

SANDS: Yeah, no repeats?

KERNAGIS: Yeah, they’ve had a few repeats, and some of that was in the past. Typically, it’s one and done. But I’m a huge proponent of what they’re doing down there and if I can help in anyway down the line, if I can work with them in any way, then that will definitely happen.

SANDS: Would you ever consider pursuing something like going into space?

KERNAGIS: You know, it’s something — it’s a long-shot dream. But I’ve had the astronauts that I’ve worked with and everything, they’ve all asked me that. And, absolutely, you know, it’s something I’d do without even considering it. That being said, you know, they have 18,000 applicants this last time around, you know, for maybe 10 to 15 spots, depending on how many they decide. But it would be a fantastic opportunity if that came along. But right now I’m focused on my program here.

SANDS: That’s about all I have. Thank you.

KERNAGIS: Thank you.

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