Are you a scuba diver? Or perhaps a scuba instructor?
Let me introduce you to one of the coolest jobs you may or may not have ever heard of. Imagine being a diving professional and your job is to train astronauts. Yes, I’m talking NASA Astronauts.
Say hello to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), located in Houston, Texas!
I’ve had the opportunity to visit the NBL two times. The first time was for the NASA Artemis Media tour. The second time was a private tour with some friends (which is where most of the photos in this post are going to come from). If you are a professional diver and have any interest in supporting the space program, I highly recommend to keep reading!
What is Neutral Buoyancy?
How do you train astronauts for spacewalk? Parabolic aircraft flights offer temporary weightlessness to train, but the method (about 30 seconds of weightlessness) isn’t necessarily sustainable for long term duration training. In 1966, NASA began using neutral buoyancy as one of the main tools for spacewalk training, and it’s still in use today. What is neutral buoyancy exactly, and how does is resemble a zero gravity environment?
Think about it, if you are swimming in a body of water, you tend to stay floating on the surface. To become “neutrally buoyant,” you’ll be fitted with a combination of weights and flotation devices, to achieve the equivalent of “hovering” under water. Because water is as water does, heavy objects can be moved with relative ease under water.
However, if you are an astronaut who has been made neutrally buoyant in your spacesuit, you can still feel your weight and there still is water drag while trying to move. These types of limitations are always kept in mind during training. Despite that and between the ability to move objects and “hovering” – the neutral buoyancy method is one of the best ways to train for zero gravity in space at this time (source).
Quick History of NASA’s Underwater Training
Here’s a timeline of NASA’s neutral buoyancy training:
- 1966: NASA begins using neutral buoyancy as a method of training in swimming pools at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland
- Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin became the first astronaut to use neutral buoyancy to train for his spacewalks on the Gemini XII mission
- 1967: NASA / Johnson Space Center (formerly Manned Spacecraft Center) build a larger neutral buoyancy facility in Houston, the Water Immersion Facility (82,000 gallon pool)
- 1969: Neil A. Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, James A. Lovell and Fred W. Haise all trained in the Water Immersion Facility for Moon missions
- 1978: The Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF) was constructed to accommodate the Space Shuttle program and became operational in 1980
- 1995: Construction of the NBL began. NASA designated the building as the as the Sonny Carter Training Facility in honor of astronaut Manley L. “Sonny” Carter, who died in a plane crash in 1991
- 1996: First suited dives in the NBL by astronauts Jerry L. Ross and Linda M. Godwin
- 1997: NBL facility formally dedicated
One of the World’s Largest Indoor Pools
The NBL is indeed one of the world’s largest indoor pools and supports multiple large scale operations. Here are some NASA stats related to the NBL pool itself:
- Length: 202 ft (61.5 m)
- Width: 102 ft (31.1 m)
- Depth: 40 ft (12.2 m)
- Volume: 6.2 million gallons
- Water composition: Chlorinated fresh water
- Water temperature: 84°-86° F (28.9°-30° C)
The pool currently has a replica of the Moon’s surface, full-scale sections of the International Space Station, a section being utilized by the Navy and more. Future underwater training will include the Lunar Gateway, a small space station being built to support future Moon missions.
The NBL Facility
The entire NBL facility, located about 4 miles north of Johnson Space Center, is more than just the pool itself. From my private tour, I learned that there are approximately 200 employees with about 24 total diver operators.
The entire facility also offers:
- Multiple integrated control rooms
- Clean climate controlled environment
- Extensive video, audio and instrumentation capabilities
- Multiple crane systems for equipment handling
- SCUBA and surface supplied dive systems
- On-site engineering and technical services
- Co-located logistics and manufacturing facility
- ISO level 8 clean room
- Classroom, meeting, and high-bay work areas
- Time-critical, mission success ready workforce
- World class safety culture (Source)
The entire facility is incredible to view in person. But the coolest part for me is the human factor – the divers and other staff supporting the NASA astronaut program. The divers are all contracted by Oceaneering, who work with the astronauts underwater and set up their scuba gear for training.
One of the divers we spoke with on my private tour, Emily Cox, had been in the spacesuit herself about six times to see what astronauts go through while in training to help her better understand how she can help them. Emily has been an NBL diver since 2017.
She obtained her BS in Marine Biology with a Minor in Anthropology from Texas A&M Galveston in 2014. Prior to the NBL, she was a North Pacific Groundfish Observer for NOAA Fisheries from 2014-2016. In my humble opinion, she should apply to actually be an astronaut as she’s one of the coolest people you’ll ever meet.
The whole reason why I was able to get the private tour was because of another equally cool human being, Jim Fuderer. One of my first real jobs many years ago was working in offshore oil and gas regulation (I work in the aviation sector now, quite the difference!). Through a former offshore diving colleague, I was connected with Jim and a friendship was born. You can check out his story and learn even more about the NBL on NASA’s, Houston We Have a Podcast.
Jim and Emily are legit.
What’s Next for the NBL?
As human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars ramps up over the next few decades, I have no doubt divers will continue to remain a crucial component for training future astronauts. With countless missions on the calendar, including astronaut-led, neutral buoyancy training remains to be one of the most effective tools to preparing humans for life beyond our atmosphere.
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