The future of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Aquarius laboratory, the world's only undersea lab appears bleak owing to budget cuts from the Federal Government.
The NOAA was under orders to tighten up and the $3 million annual budget for Aquarius was eliminated, ABC News reported.
Thomas Potts, Director, Aquarius, told ABC News: "There were signals that the budget was tight but we didn't think it would be zeroed out. By the end of July we will have lost two permanent and three temporary staff members and will no longer be mission-ready."
The lab operates 4.5 kilometers offshore of Key Largo, Florida, 20 meters beneath the oceanic surface. Initially, it was deployed in the U.S. Virgin Islands and moved to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1993 after a Hurricane Hugo devastated St. Croix in 1989.
Originally conceived and funded by NOAA's National Undersea Research Program (NURP), the underwater laboratory was built by Victoria Machine Works in 1987.
Comprising 48-foot-long cylinder, the lab facilitated scientists to study coral reefs and ocean life, typically on 10-day missions.
The lab can host up to six visitors simultaneously and has amenities including bunk beds, laptops, and a mini-kitchen. However, its biggest advantage is the fact that scientists do not have to dive from the surface repeatedly to do their study and reach the floor again.
Several scientists have studied biology and ocean environment at the Aquarius. Even NASA employed the services of Aquarius for a mission called NEEMO that helped astronauts and engineers practice living in close quarters like a spacecraft.
Though scientists find it valuable, the Federal Government is struggling with budget limitations. Jane Lubchenco, Administrator, NOAA said in a statement: "NOAA's core mission is to conduct and support scientific research and exploration of the oceans. The Aquarius program has been a vital part of this research and we fully recognize its importance. Unfortunately, our budget environment is very, very challenging and we are unable to do all that we would like."
Though an Aquarius Foundation is trying to raise funds to maintain the lab, its efforts may not raise adequate funds to fund active work from the lab. Meanwhile, the lab's supporters are hoping a large donor will come forward amidst criticism that it is expensive to maintain. Even when not in use, divers must ensure that its systems work properly every week in salt water.