Astronauts and swimming go hand in hand. Big surprise, huh? Any given morning a person can enter NASA and make their way through the complex and find in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) a six million gallon swimming pool kept at a constant 86 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the largest indoor pool in the world. It’s big enough to make a person dizzy.
In this 200 feet x 100 feet wide tank, with a water depth of forty feet, astronauts train for space walks. They are not here to get their swim on. They descend down an elevated deck to a depth of twenty feet and then descend another twenty feet to the floor level. Throughout the pool are life-size models of International Space Station components. Like a kid playing with toys, astronauts do some very serious training in a swimming pool designed to simulate microgravity.
Evaporation alone requires five thousand gallons of replacement water to be pumped into the pool on a weekly basis. Just entering the pool complex makes one think of taking a walk in a high humidity jungle. However, the smell of chlorine in the air, scratchy sounding announcements over the intercom systems, and the hum and vibration of equipment quickly reminds you just exactly where you are.
It takes a twenty-eight man dive team to engineer and maintain this massive pool. They find it to be an incredible experience. Although the pool is not even close to containing the entire International Space Station, it does contain mock-ups of its most important features. While working underwater, astronauts can practice on three truss segments in order to prepare for the future possibility of needing to repair any of the eleven trusses that hold the ISS’s radiator and solar arrays.
Any fitness or competition swimmer would be in awe of this swimming pool that is actually one of mankind’s largest laboratories. Swimming in this pool is not for keeping fit but for astronauts to learn to manage themselves and their tools in microgravity. Spacewalk rehearsals performed swimming in this pool allows astronauts to experience, to some degree, how microgravity affects the properties of weight and mass on any object they may use.
Fitness and competitive swimmers understand the dense properties of water. Astronauts prepare for a dip in the pool by donning a suit designed for neutral buoyancy. Tools and equipment that will be used in training are also designed to be neutrally buoyant.
When a fitness or competitive swimmer gets ready to head for the pool, they wear a swimsuit. Astronauts however, wear a white, full-body costume, liquid cooled, and accented with blue surgical booties.
A fitness or competitive swimmer may remain in the pool for half an hour or up to an hour during a workout. For astronauts, they are working on skills not to tone their body, but to preserve their life and possibly the lives of their crew. After a briefing about their “mission”, the astronauts enter the pool and do not exit until the mission is complete. This could take as long as six hours. As everyone prepares to head for the pool, everyone is reminded to make certain they take extra air tanks. This is not a pleasure dive with a scheduled time to surface. They will finish only when the mission is accomplished successfully.
Fitness and competitive swimmers will usually dive in or take a set of steps to enter a pool for a workout swim. Not so with the astronauts. As crew members get their “go” order, they join one another on a pool deck. When the final team members arrive, four cranes lower them into the pool.
Such a mission could possibly involve re-routing cables that are necessary to connect space station modules. Solar arrays are critical pieces of equipment on the space station so missions often focus on training astronauts how to perform tasks of routine maintenance.
When the astronauts go for a training swim and dive, they are not alone. Accompanying them in the pool is a camera dive team and a safety dive team. The titles of these teams make their jobs self-explanatory.
Astronauts take the whole concept of swimming in order to preserve health to another level. Next time you’re in the pool, roll over on your back and enjoy the sensation of buoyancy and think about the astronauts floating above you in the atmosphere in the International Space Station. In a sense, they are feeling the same way.