Wake County

Raleigh native joins underwater NASA mission

Dawn Kernagis, a Raleigh native, will take part in an underwater NASA mission off the coast of Florida.
Dawn Kernagis, a Raleigh native, will take part in an underwater NASA mission off the coast of Florida. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Dawn Kernagis has spent a lot of time underwater.

She began taking scuba-diving lessons when she was 15, and she has led divers on exploration missions around the world.

This month, the Raleigh native will join NASA scientists and astronauts for a 16-day mission – not in space, but on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

“This is the chance of a lifetime,” Kernagis, 39, said.

NASA Extreme Environment Missions Operations launched in 2001 to help astronauts prepare for space exploration. Being underwater, it turns out, is good practice for being in space.

Throughout her science career, Kernagis has crossed paths with astronauts, but she has never worked so closely with them.

“You definitely have questions,” she said. “I mean, how many people have done that?”

After graduating from Sanderson High School in 1995, Kernagis studied biochemistry at N.C. State University. In 2012, she earned her doctoral degree from Duke, where she studied the effects of deep-sea diving on the human body, including the release of built-up pressure.

Kernagis knew she wanted to be a diver from the age of 9. After she started taking lessons, she worked at Bill’s Scuba, a diving shop in North Raleigh where she filled tanks, sold gear and helped with dive classes.

“I would do everything I can to learn everything I can about the sport,” she said. “They were great mentors.”

In 1993, Kernagis started leading cave diving expeditions in Florida, Germany and France. She led teams that mapped out underwater caves for governments and did geological studies for universities.

Now Kernagis works as a researcher for the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, where she researches “how we can help people perform better in extreme environments.”

The NEEMO mission seemed like a perfect opportunity for her. Such missions provide a chance for marine scientists to gather samples and study the ocean floor.

She applied, and in February she found out she was selected to be part of the NEEMO 21 team that will begin an underwater mission July 25. Her years of diving experience and research made her a good candidate.

“When I got the call, I couldn’t speak,” Kernagis said. “I was so excited.”

Kernagis will spend eight days in Aquarius, a research center 62 feet below the surface. Its exterior is covered with coral, and the inside features a full kitchen and rare views of marine life.

The crew members, called aquanauts, will leave Aquarius for dive missions lasting up to four hours.

While Kernagis is used to taking the plunge, her work with NEEMO will require heavier, more complex gear. But she said she is prepared.

“We spent a week at Johnson Space Center in the classroom learning safety and how we will conduct experiments,” she said.

Both of the mission’s commanders have been to space. One touched the Hubble Telescope during a spacewalk, and the other recently returned from a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station.

Until the mission begins, Kernagis said, the crew is learning how to use the equipment, planning experiments and discovering what a massive effort it is to pull off something like this.

“I’m not nervous,” she said. “Just ready to go down.”

Evan Owens: 919-829-46345; @eowens12