For most of us, job training conjures images of windowless meeting rooms and white boards. For NASA astronauts, however, training requires a bit more of an exotic locale.
Specifically, it requires a place to simulate weightlessness so that tricky maneuvers can be practiced that might later be executed in outer space. To provide astronauts this type of training, NASA uses the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston, Texas. Now, thanks to a new 360-degree YouTube video released by the space agency (see below), you can get a sense of what it feels like to float around in this remarkable body of water.
When the NBL was first filled in May 1996, it took 28 days to pump all 6.2 million gallons of water into it. Since then, astronauts have used it to not only train themselves for working in space, but it's also been called into service to help NASA solve space-based problems from here on Earth. For example, in 1993, missions for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope from the Space Shuttle were simulated in the pool.
Now the NBL, which measures 202 ft in length (67 m), 102 ft in width (31 m), and 40 ft in depth (12 m), is home to a full-scale replica of the International Space Station, which helps mission participants get used to weightlessness before their stint aboard the floating space laboratory.
As its name implies, the NBL provides a neutral buoyancy environment. An object with neutral buoyancy is just as likely to float as it is to sink, and when in a pool like the NBL, it appears to simply hover under the water. This lets an astronaut work with objects much as they would be in orbit.
"However, there are two important differences," says NASA. "First, a suited astronaut in the NBL is not truly weightless; while it is true the suit/astronaut combination is neutrally buoyant, the astronauts feel their weight while in the suit (they are lying or standing in the suit depending on its orientation; that is one reason why suit fit is so critical). Second, water drag acts to hinder motion; this makes some things easier to do in the NBL than on orbit and some things more difficult."
Still, the space agency points out, working in the NBL is the best thing we currently have to simulate the weightlessness of space here on Earth. Plus, it makes for one fine 360-degree video as you'll see here.