Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory - Part 2

At the NBL with Astronaut Col. Terrence Wilcutt

After lunch we drove to NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) also known as the Sonny Carter Training Facility. This is where the astronauts train for Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA's) - better known as "Space Walks". The NBL training facility is located near Ellington Field (that's where all those cool T-38 aircraft are hangared) and is named in honor of the late astronaut M. L. "Sonny" Carter, who was instrumental in developing many of the current space-walking techniques used by the astronauts. Could not have picked a better place to have a discussion on training and methods and techniques used to build a world class "team".

Entrance to the NBL, the Sonny Carter Training Facility

The NBL is quite impressive. It's 202 feet in length, 102 feet in width and 40 feet in depth and contains 6.2 million gallons of water that is filtered and cleaned every 24 hours. Angie Prince who is the Branch Chief of EVA training gave us a very thorough overview of the NBL and the training that her team and the crews go through. For every hour of actual EVA the astronauts go through seven hours of simulated training in the NBL. Every time they have astronauts in the water she has a full team of physicians, safety divers, camera crew/divers and "mission control" going through all of the details and choreographing every aspect of the EVA. She said that after each training session they debrief in great detail. Every astronaut is "graded" after each training session. She said that the simulations are so "real" that many astronauts have thanked her and her team while on an actual EVA because the training was so close to the real thing. The selection of the training crews and the training they go through for these simulations was at a level I have not encountered before. They set the bar pretty high and then put together a training program to pull everyone involved to that high level. It was absolutely impressive!

I asked if I could suit up - they thought I was kidding

It was truly an amazing place. While we were there two ISS astronauts were undergoing EVA training in the far side of the pool where the ISS mock ups were located. Several times I offered to help and each time I got a huge smile from Terry and Harv. Oh, they new I was quite serious. Terry told me that sometimes they come over and wear their SCUBA gear and swim around the mock ups of the Space Shuttle and the ISS. How cool is that?

The ISS mock ups are at the far end

Mock up of the Shuttle cargo bay and the robotic arm

They hoisted up two astronauts that were training for an EVA 

Angie is the Chief of the EVA Training Branch

We then ended up in "mission control" at the NBL to continue our discussion on the importance of training and how leaders react during a crisis. Several important points to take away. At the NBL the astronauts train until they have gone over each step until its second nature. They sort of  build up "muscle memory". Then they train through emergencies and "off nominal scenarios" (to use a NASA term). That is they train through all of those situations that can happen. This is done because there will always be the possibility that they will encounter a situation that they have not trained for. In those situations, their training kicks in to cover most of the situation while their brain now starts to "solve the problem" that is presented. This is hard to describe in a short blog nor go over in detail the entire discussion that we had. Perhaps the best example of this is what Dick and Jeff presented. When US Air flight 1549 sucked up birds and both engines died, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger's training kicked in. If you listen to the cockpit voice recordings of his conversations with "ground" and with his "co-pilot" you can clearly note where his training had kicked in and what he was trying to "problem solve". The co-pilot made the takeoff and was "pilot in command" at the time of the bird strike (this is not unusual as the captain and the pilot take turns flying so as to give flight experience to the co-pilots) but when  both engines shut down Sully said "my plane" and took charge of the situation. Now if you go on to listen to the cockpit audio you can hear him try to solve the issue of where he could put down the plane and he was going through the options of each of the near by airports and available runways including  setting the plane down on the Hudson River. At no time do you hear him talk about controlling or flying the plane. That is because he had practiced "engine out" situations enough times in the simulator that his training had kicked in. He knew what to do and how to keep the plane in the air. He was not actively focusing on flying the plane but was actually focusing on going through ALL the available options to find a safe place to to set the plane down. Oh, I could go on an on about this... but it was one of those discussions that makes you really think. A lot of important tid bits to take away and makes you think how you would apply training to your engineers and organization so that they would react appropriately in  time of crisis and help "solve the problem".

Next Part 3: Dinner at the "Starship Gallery" at the Houston Space Center. There is an actual Goddard rocket, Gordon Cooper's "Faith 7" Mercury capsule, Gordon Cooper's and Pete Conrad's Gemini V spacecraft, the Apollo 17 Command Module "America"... and many more...

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