Open Water As A Space Analog Environment

The first space analog activity I will be participating in is an open water scuba diver certification course. The course will last 2 weeks with a certification weekend to follow.

What is a space analog environment?

While in space, astronauts often participate in extravehicular activities (EVAs) to repair or enhance the exterior elements of the spacecraft. The risk and accuracy they need to achieve takes extensive training and scenario work to ensure successful EVAs. To support this training, the astronauts participate in open water and pool activities. These simulated, or analog, environments allow for the sensation of weightlessness, reliance on external oxygen, and the awareness and control over body movement in a 3-dimensional space.

By participating in open water certification, I hope to better understand what a trainee would go through when working under water or in space. In preparation for this experience, I spent some time looking at the facilities NASA uses for both astronaut training and for other microgravity research.

Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)

At Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, NASA has an indoor pool, known as the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, that supports astronaut training for EVAs and other human spaceflight research. This pool provides a near-weightless environment allowing for 3-dimensional axis (up, down, left right, upside down), water drag, and pressure simulation. The NBL hosts mockups of various modules on the International Space Station (ISS) in a 1-for-1 configuration. The modules do not include any of the interior components, however they do include everything on the exterior to support EVA training activities. To learn more about the NBL, check out the NASAfacts sheet on NASA’s Sonny Carter Training Facility.

NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO)

As part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program, NASA hosts astronauts, scientists and engineers in their off-shore underwater research station. The NASA facility, named Aquarius, is located off the coast of Key Largo, Florida and is managed by Florida International University (FIU). One of the benefits of living and working underwater is the trainees are exposed to a training technique called saturation diving. After a 24-hour period underwater, the body is saturated with dissolved gas. This point is important because once saturation is achieved, the time needed to decompress no longer increases. By conducting saturation diving, the trainees can better assess how much time they need to decompress to avoid decompression sickness.

In support of the training astronauts in both environments, there is an additional corp of support divers that work directly with the astronauts. The divers help conduct mission maneuvers, better simulate weightlessness, and monitor their overall safety. For anyone who is interested in this line of work, check out Oceaneering for more information and career opportunities.

On a personal level I am looking forward to seeing how I feel and work in an underwater environment. Open water diving is a step in that direction and will certainly open up opportunities for the future.

The featured image is of my husband and I testing out wetsuits in our backyard pool.
Photo credit: Erin Bonilla

About the author

Erin Bonilla

Erin Bonilla is pursuing a master's degree in Adventure Education with a concentration in the psychosocial components of human spaceflight selection and training. She believes that through the development of a baseline approach to behavioral health within the astronaut selection process we can minimize long term psychosocial challenges and increase participant enjoyment.

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