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Aquarius, World's Only Undersea Lab, Endangered by Budget

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NEW YORK) -- Sixty feet down in the waters off Key Largo, Fla., the water around the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aquarius laboratory is clear, warm and blue.  Marine scientists -- aquanauts -- have been coming to live in this underwater habitat since 1993.

But the future of Aquarius is, at the moment, dark and clouded.  The lab, the only one of its kind in the world, has fallen victim to budget cuts from Washington. NOAA was under orders to tighten up, and the $3 million annual budget for Aquarius was eliminated.

"There were signals that the budget was tight, but we didn't think it would be zeroed out," said Thomas Potts, Aquarius' director at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which has operated the lab for NOAA.  "By the end of July we will have lost two permanent and three temporary staff members and will no longer be mission-ready."

"Mission-ready," as Potts put it, means keeping the lab in condition to be a safe habitat for up to six visitors at a time.  The lab, a 48-foot-long cylinder, made it possible for ocean scientists to study coral reefs or other ocean life, typically on 10-day "missions."

The lab has basic amenities -- bunk beds, laptops and a mini-kitchen -- but its greatest advantage is that scientists do not have to dive from the surface, do their work and come back up repeatedly.  That protects them from the bends, the debilitating condition that can happen if one surfaces too quickly and nitrogen bubbles form in one's muscles.

More than 100 groups of divers have gone to live in Aquarius in the last two decades, studying biology and the ocean environment.  NASA used Aquarius for its own missions, called NEEMO -- a chance for astronauts and engineers to get practice at living in closed quarters like a spacecraft, with limited support from mission control.

But while the lab had an aura of adventure to it, and the scientists who used it said it was valuable, Washington is struggling with budget realities.

"NOAA's core mission is to conduct and support scientific research and exploration of the oceans," said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco -- herself a marine ecologist -- in a statement.  "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."

There is an Aquarius Foundation trying to raise private funds to keep the lab going, but Potts said its goal is $750,000 -- a fraction of what it would take to fund active work.  One disadvantage the lab has always faced is that it's expensive to maintain; even when it's not being used, divers need to go down each week to keep its systems working in salt water.  As it is, the lab's metal skin is encrusted in marine vegetation.

The lab's defenders say they hope a large donor will come forward.  They say there are possibilities, but so far nothing solid to report.

"Unless we get some pretty good news," said Potts, "our staff is going to start to drift away.  They're very talented people; they won't remain unemployed long."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio