Now that I’ve fully recovered from my Writing Excuses Retreat 2019 cruise, it’s time to share my experience with the world. There’s way too much to talk about in a single post, so I’ll be breaking these up into several parts. First thing’s first: NASA!
I met Benjamin Hewett on my first cruise in 2017. Last year, he generously offered to show me around his workplace, which happens to be the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I only mentioned it in passing on my blog due to the whirlwind of travel and adventure it got mixed up in, but there’s an entire album of photos on FaceBook where I gush about how freaking awesome it was. I got to sit in the Orion Capsule training mockup!
This year he offered to show me around the Thermal Vacuum Chamber and the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. I could barely contain my squee. The NBL is one of the most awesome places at the entire space center. The tour was even more fun because I was joined by WX podcasters Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and DongWon Song, as well as Matthew Drake and Cooper Barham.
The Thermal Vacuum Chamber was a daunting bit of hardware. Just the door to the thing is forty feet in diameter. The chamber is so big and heavy they put it on the bare concrete foundation, then built the entire building up around it.
We got some history and technical details about the place, and a few stories about the difficulties they had in some of the smaller test chambers. Getting astronauts in EVA suits in and out of them in full gravity required some creative suspension setups. Emergency repressurizing required dry air storage tanks otherwise they filled the room with several feet of instant snowdrift.
Moving on to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, we met up with Nicole Compte, one of the divers, who showed us around the world’s largest indoor pool. Even though it’s broken up into sections for more efficient use of space, there’s still a full scale mockup of most of the ISS in there! Only things really missing are the solar panels and radiators. There’s even a working reproduction of the Canadarm! The first thing that strikes you about it once you get over the sheer scale of the thing (200 ft X 100 ft X 40 feet deep) is how incredibly clear the water is. It’s deep enough to give everything a significant blue tint, but even with some ripples, you can clearly make out every detail across the entire thing all the way to the bottom. The filtration system for the water is almost as impressive as the pool itself!
After a good deal of gawking, she took us into a classroom above the control center so we could get a good bird’s eye view of the pool while she described the insane fitness requirements of each level of diver as well as some of the considerations for using real EVA suits under water. We also got to watch an active training operation going on with an astronaut and his 4 support divers.
You expect NASA employees to be intelligent, accomplished professionals (which they are), but I’ve been just as impressed with how open and welcoming they are. Once you get past the heroic PR facade that’s been erected up around their organization (unfortunate necessity for maintaining political and financial support in a world that doesn’t properly appreciate what they do), you realize that they’re just regular humans going about their lives doing their jobs. Sometimes, it’s boring and mundane, sometimes it’s pushing at the edge of science fiction, but they’re still just people. You can, however, tell how much they love what they do and how happy they are to share it with the world. Even with shamefully inadequate budgets and constantly shifting orders, they hold onto an optimism and determination that makes them seem unstoppable.