Monday, September 05, 2005

NASA's Neutral Bouyance Lab

Friday morning I was lucky enough to get a tour of the NBL at NASA Johnson Space Center. It's more commonly known as the big swimming pool the astronauts train in.

It was really amazing. I have to thank Shane for giving me the tour, especially because it's a restricted facility, so you have to be escorted to go in there.

Free Image Hosting at

Outside the pool, they have a hypobaric chamber, and all the astronauts have to go through training in it. The chamber takes oxygen out of the air, which makes the people in it act silly and uncoordinated. Free Image Hosting at

Next to it is the hyperbaric chamber. It's the place they put you if you get the bends. Free Image Hosting at

The pool is 40 feet deep and the water is so clear, it only looks 12 feet deep. They only use Houston tap water to fill it. The blue color is from the lights. They don't tint it and the floor of the pool is plain white, but it's hard to believe since the water looks so blue.

Today, the pool was quite full. They had a mockup of the shuttle bay module in one side Free Image Hosting at, and the other 2/3 of the pool was taken up by two mockups of the space station. Free Image Hosting at

There were two astronauts doing training in the pool this day. Their goal is to get suited up and in the water by 9:00 am so they can get a full 6 hours of underwater training in. Their time is limited by the divers, actually. Each astronaut has a team of four divers. Two safety divers, one utility diver and one camera diver that records everything. The divers can only be on for 2 hours, then they have to take a 1 hour break and then they can come back for 1 more hour. That makes for a lot of divers during the day.

As you can imagine, it's a very competitive job, and Shane said they get stacks and stacks of resumes every week. He said most of the divers were former military. He told us about the physical requirements they had. The safety divers have to be able to pull around 250 pounds from the bottom of the pool to the surface. If they can't manage it, they could still be a camera diver though. He said a lot of the technicians have even learned to dive because they work in the facility, even if their job is something like a mechanical fabricator. But they've also got some people who can't even swim who work there.

That morning, one of the astronauts was having trouble putting on his pants. While we watched, he took the pants off and put them on four times. They have to be just right because he'll be working in it for 6 hours at least.

It's hard to see in this picture because I couldn't zoom in very far. But by now, both astronauts have been suited up and are putting on their helmets. The donning platform they're standing on will lift them into the pool, and the safety divers will then unhook them from the donning platform and they can start working on their training tasks for the day. Free Image Hosting at

The pool is a unique NASA facility, and it's hopping all the time with various kinds of training. They even do some outside training there for various industries. Shane said they were considering doing some work with the oil and gas pipeline industry, but it turned out the mockups the company wanted to build were so heavy they would have damaged the floor of the pool. So that got nixed. But they do some DoD training activities there because it's a controlled environment.

All in all, a nice end to my first week of work.

No comments: