Orbit Tourism

Spacewalk on earth happens in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy

Spacewalking is a critical part of a space mission and a rather difficult yet intriguing activity for the crew. It is also an activity that needs proper and advanced preparation for the astronauts to be able to perform it safely while being in the galactic sphere and outside their spacecraft. So, where does this whole spacewalk thing takes place on earth? It all happens in a specially organized place, called Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL).

Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) is operated by NASA and it is where the simulating and the improvement of spacewalk procedures happen as well as the testing of the equipment and every other component necessary to conduct a mission successfully.

The NBL is located at the Sonny Carter Training Facility, near the Johnson Space Center in HoustonTexas. It is a training facility where neutral buoyancy is created and thus experienced by the space crew of upcoming galactic missions.

A large neutral buoyancy indoor pool is the central feature of the establishment along with other specialized equipment that aims to test and seal the success of a space flight.

The main goal of the creation of such a center is to train astronauts in an environment that simulates space’s microgravity environment along with the appropriate suits they were during a space flight. Astronauts perform simulated EVA tasks, meaning a number of activities done by them while being outside their spacecraft beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

When it all began

It was not until the late 90’s that NASA started to consider replacing the previous neutral buoyancy training center, called Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF).

The WETF was built at Johnson Space Center and had been for a long period of time the training place for many astronauts. However, the pool of that facility was way too small to hold mock-ups of space station components and other alike equipment, intended for the Space Station Freedom or the International Space Station.

The establishment was initially owned by McDonnel Douglas before NASA purchased it from him at the beginning of the 90s. NASA reformed it to create a neutral buoyancy training center in 1995.

The facility’s characteristics

The pool tank measures 202 feet in length (62 m), 102 feet in width (31 m), and 40 feet in depth (12 m), while it can hold about 6.2 million US gallons of water (about 23 million litres). At first, it was programmed to be on Johnson Space Center property and was planned to size 235 feet (72 m) by 135 feet (41 m) with a depth of 60 feet (18 m). For the sake of decreasing its cost, NASA decided to make it smaller to the size mentioned above and it was built inside an already existing structure.

The pool is divided into two sections in order to permit the execution of parallel training sessions. Its water is recycled every 19.6 hours and is monitored in a way to maintain a steady temperature of 82°–88° Fahrenheit (28o -31o Celsius), for eliminating the danger of hypothermia for the training staff that also dives with the trainees. The water is also being chemically treated to control contaminant growth while minimizing the potential corrosion effect on the equipment.

The facility contains full-size replicas of International Space Station (ISS) modules and payloads, along with visiting vehicles such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the European Space Agency ATV, the SpaceX Dragon, and the Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus.

NBL also contains a hyperbaric chamber and an altitude chamber to treat any divers’ diseases and simulate physiological flight effects respectively.

Space missions that involve human crew members demand in-depth, exact planning, and preparation. In Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, astronauts learn to experience spacewalking in zero gravity at its closest. It is one of the most crucial parts of the whole complex space exploration endeavor. They may not achieve real weightlessness but the facility offers them a concrete spacewalking foundation to prepare them in the best possible way for the extravehicular activities they will conduct in real zero gravity. 

NBL is that place on earth where you can spacewalk without having to take off the ground. Literally.  

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