Spinoff is NASA's annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

To simulate weightlessness while rehearsing for NASA's 1966 Gemini 12 mission, astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan practiced spacewalks underwater, floating fully suited around a mockup of the space capsule in the swimming pool of a Maryland prep school. After that mission demonstrated the effectiveness of such training and proved astronauts could easily work outside a space vehicle, NASA began investing heavily in underwater spacewalk simulation, which would become a staple of astronaut training.

NASA has constructed a handful of underwater training facilities over the years, but the one in which astronauts currently train is the largest. Built in the mid-1990s to accommodate mockups of the International Space Station (ISS), the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) at Johnson Space Center's Sonny Carter Training Facility is 202 feet long, 102 feet wide, and 40 feet deep, and holds 6.2 million gallons of water.

In the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center, participants in Bastion's Helicopter Underwater Escape Training evacuate a helicopter mockup and board a life raft.

The facility is outfitted with more than just space vehicle mockups. Overhead cranes, audio and video communication systems, skybox-style control rooms, an uninterruptible power supply, nearby staging areas, light manufacturing capabilities, a hyperbaric chamber to treat decompression sickness, and an onsite medical team all support complex operations there.

In the years after the NBL was built — while NASA was flying frequent Space Shuttle missions to build the ISS — NASA used the facility almost constantly, with two crews often practicing space-walks simultaneously, five days a week. With the U.S. portion of the ISS largely completed in 2011, training tapered off, with one astronaut crew at a time currently training there three to four days a week. As a result, NASA decided to offset the cost of maintaining the lab and its full-time staff by allowing outside entities to utilize the facility for a fee. Under a Space Act Agreement, Johnson allowed Raytheon — which has been the prime contractor managing the facility since 2003 — to partner with industry to offer training and testing services to external customers. Offshore survival and fire training classes began in 2011.

In 2015, Bastion Technologies, a subcontractor to Raytheon providing NBL divers and engineering services, expanded its product line and became the provider of offshore survival and fire training at the NBL. A small business that started out in the aerospace industry in 1998, Bastion had also branched out into the defense and petroleum markets.

Offshore oil and gas workers going into the Gulf of Mexico and European waters are required to have certain levels of survival training — standards that are set by the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organization (OPITO). Originally, only three basic OPITO-certified courses were offered at the NBL: Basic Offshore Safety Induction, Further Offshore Emergency Training, and Helicopter Underwater Escape Training. Bastion has since earned certification for seven more courses, including Minimum Industry Safety Training for Experienced Workers, Escape Chute Training, and alternate versions of the basic courses geared toward tropical environments. Bastion is the only company in the Western Hemisphere certified to offer the Hydrogen Sulfide Safety course and one of two that offers the Compressed Air Emergency Breathing System course.

Workers who will deploy to offshore oil and gas rigs are often required to have certain levels of fire and survival training, a need that Bastion Technologies is able to meet through the use of NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

The spacious facility keeps air and water controlled for temperature. Having equipment like overhead cranes comes in handy, as does the ample staging area. There, the company has set up its smoke maze, where trainees learn how to navigate in low visibility, and the “fire ground,” where they learn to use fire blankets, extinguishers, and other equipment.

Other federal entities are also making use of the facility, including the Coast Guard, Army Corp of Engineers, and Air Force, as well as Navy divers supporting Orion landing and recovery efforts. Among the other private companies working there, Oceaneering International provides remotely operated underwater vehicles for oil and gas testing. Petroleum companies have used the pool to conduct research and development; for example, trying out various inspection methods on full-sized pipes and other equipment.

Even assuming NASA ramps up its activities at the NBL in preparation for the first crewed Orion missions, scheduled for the early 2020s, there will still be time and space available for outside groups.

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Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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