Eric Cheng visits the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Lab

An astronaut is prepped for a flight in the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Lab

I went to visit the NASA NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Lab) today for an unscheduled, last-minute, behind-the-scenes tour, thanks to Joe Holley of Marine Visions, who worked there for nearly ten years. It was funny because everywhere we went, his old work buddies made “HEY, get that guy out of here!” gestures before then inviting us over for a closer look.

The NASA NBL has full-size mockups of the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle in its enormous pool. Wiki says that the pool “is 202 ft. (61 m) in length, 102 ft. (31 m) wide, and 40 ft. 6 in. (12 m) deep, and contains 6.2 million gallons (23.5 million litres) of water”—enormous!


I see the Space Station!

I saw a 3D model of the pool and its contents, and the coordination of training for the various missions is impressive. Also, such coordination must require about a million LCD screens, because they were absolutely everywhere in the facility. Today, the astronauts and divers were training for a mission to install a viewing window of some sort on the Space Station.


an astronaut is lowered into the NBL’s pool

One side of the pool was lined with dive equipment, which is maintained by a full-time dive maintenance team. It looks like it’s OMS, Mares, and Poseidon that have won at NASA.


equipment lines one side of the pool

Videography is also a very large part of the NBL. Multiple cameras—stationary, hand-held, and attached to each astronaut’s helmet—record every move underwater for real-time monitoring from a control room. Diving in the NBL tank may seem like it’s a privilege, but it seems to me that holding a camera for hours at a time (each “flight” is 6 hours) might become tedious after awhile. Although, I assume a video diver’s buoyancy would be absolutely *perfect* after not too long!

Howard Hall and Bob Cranston recently took some footage at NBL using a 3-D IMAX camera, so there is definitely going to be some spectacular footage coming to theaters, soon.

I *really* enjoyed my visit. Everyone was so friendly, and having insider access via Joe was super special.

Thanks also to James Wiseman, who lent me a Canon 5D Mark II and a bunch of nice lenses so I could come back from my tour with more than just happy-snappy shots; I hadn’t anticipated needing such equipment this week!

More images at Eric’s website.