Yep! That’s right, NASA has a giant swimming pool in Houston: The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). It’s difficult to provide astronauts with an accurate and tangible experience of what it’s like to live and work in space, especially performing spacewalks outside of the International Space Station (ISS). If something breaks or maintenance is required on the outside of the space station, it’s imperative that the fix is put into place quickly and efficiently. Oftentimes work can be done remotely using robotic arms controlled from Mission Control Center in Houston, but there are certain missions or fixes that can only be done manually by astronauts.
In the giant swimming pool, there are external mockups of the ISS that allow astronauts to practice specific tasks while in their Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit, using the actual tools they would have available in space. When the astronauts get into the pool, they go through a weigh out process to get them neutrally buoyant; this way they neither sink nor float to help simulate a more accurate microgravity environment.
I had the opportunity to intern at the NBL during this past spring semester. The internship was part of Pathways, a rotational co-op program where students from all over the country work at various NASA organizations. Through this program, I had the chance to work with five different organizations at Johnson Space Center before graduating this December.
I was able to directly apply skills learned in my undergraduate mechanical courses to design a custom mount for training equipment, perform structural analysis to validate the design and fabricate the components needed to construct it. The mount was installed in the spacesuit control system training room and is now being used to train astronauts how to operate their EMU spacesuit during an extravehicular activity outside the ISS.
There are cool perks of working at the NBL, such as SCUBA diving and working directly with astronauts. One of these amazing individuals is Victor Glover, who is currently training to fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Crew-1 mission. He will be one of the first astronauts to fly to the ISS from U.S. soil since the shuttle era.
Working at the NBL was a fantastic experience. While in space, NASA and the astronauts conduct research and perform experiments that will have a long-lasting impact on Earth and beyond. Countless hours of preparation go into getting to space, with astronaut training in the NBL being just one part. I believe the contributions I made this semester will continue to aid in astronaut training for years to come.
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