Astronauts and swimming. The two don’t seem to go together, huh? Big surprise, they do! Just about any day of the week astronauts enter NASA’s Johnson Space Center, don a spacesuit and go for a swim in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). The “laboratory” is actually a six million gallon swimming pool warmed to a constant 86 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are susceptible to vertigo, then for heaven’s sake, if you take a tour, don’t climb up on one of the cranes and look down into what is the largest indoor pool in the world.
Astronauts train for space walks in this 200 feet x 100 feet wide x 40 feet deep state of the art aquatics facility. However, they are not diving in to get their swim on. They first descend to an elevated deck that sits at a depth of twenty feet. Stage two is another twenty foot descent to the floor of the pool. This submerged laboratory contains life-size models of some of the most important components of the International Space Station (ISS). In an underwater environment that simulates microgravity, astronauts do some very serious training.
If you have ever watched NASA videos of tethered astronauts floating around in space repairing one of the eleven trusses that support the ISS’s radiator or solar arrays, this pool is where they did the training for such work. By rehearsing spacewalks in this way, astronauts become familiar with the effects microgravity will have not only upon the movements of their bodies, but also how it will affect the objects and tools they may use.
After a crew is briefed on their mission, they enter the pool and do not return until the mission is complete. This could mean remaining submerged for up to six hours. When they have received the order, and the team is assembled on deck, they are lowered into the pool by cranes. They quickly get to work practicing such routine maintenance tasks as re-routing the cables that connect the modules of the space station or repairing the solar arrays.
Now this all sounds very impressive, but, the gringa has to ask, “Is this super expensive aquatic laboratory and space station worth all of those taxpayer’s dimes? I mean, what’s the point of it all?” The gringa has an insatiable curiosity. I just have to know. Fortunately, because NASA is funded by taxpayers, their work is an open book.
Many of the ongoing biological experiments at ISS study the long term effects being in space has upon human and animal physiology. This helps prepare astronauts for their trips as well as anticipate and manage any health complications when they return home. Such research also will help to determine if it is ever possible for humans to colonize space and live out a normal life span there.
Such things as the human reproductive system are studied. I mean, what’s the point of colonizing outer space if the colonists can’t reproduce? The seed of civilization in some far off galaxy would just die out within one generation. Effects of long term exposure to microgravity upon the human immune system must also be understood. Eventually a colonist is bound to get sick or break a bone or receive a nasty cut. Which, then, leads to cosmic scientists exploring the possibilities of developing the basic building blocks that would allow self-sufficient medicine development in outer space.
Pharmaceuticals often have their origins in organic material, such as plants. ISS experiments also study the development of enclosed ecosystems. If humans are to ever live in space, they will need to find a way to successfully farm in artificial environments. These studies are not just about the future space farming of tomato crops. Astronaut scientists also explore the possibility of raising protein livestock such as fish and quail.
So, astronauts are not just up there having the most expensive camp out of their lives. They are developing the science and methods that will be needed if mankind is ever to inhabit another place as “home” other than Earth.
Does the gringa think it’s all worth it? I suppose so. I suppose I have to consider the possibility that some knucklehead leader of a country may go totally off the rails one day and trigger a catastrophe that may have a widespread impact on our world. That may be the time to just pack up and leave this world behind and head for the stars. I just hope that if that day does ever come, I’m able to bring my little dog along.
Photo credit: www.nasa.gov