Down-to-Earth training for space: Sites simulate weightlessness

How space agencies train astronauts underwater, underground and without even getting out of bed. Photo: Bedsuit. Image credit: CNES/E. Grimault, 2013

UNITED KINGDOM,  October 26, 2013 — Even as Sandra Bullock struggles to endure weightless challenges in the movie “Gravity,” astronauts are experiencing them here on Earth — underwater, underground, even in bed.

At facilities in Houston and Key Largo, Fla., and on Sardinia in the Mediterranean, would-be spacewalkers can practice and train without incurring any of the dangers, difficulties or costs of actually exploring the final frontier.


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The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory has a big tank — 202 feet long, 102 feet wide and 40 feet 6 inches deep. Located at the Sonny Carter Training Facility near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the tank can contain 6.2 million gallons of water and house full-size mock-ups of the International Space Station, modules and space-related gear.

There, astronauts practice every element of a spacewalk under near weightless conditions, spending about seven hours training in the water for every hour they will spacewalk during a mission.

NBL Astronaut Training. Image credit NASA

“We have the ability to train astronauts in a simulated space environment here on Earth,” says Robert Durkin, facility and operations manager at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.


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But “near” weightlessness is not the same as “actual” weightlessness, so NASA has used parabolic flights since 1959 to provide the real experience — in 25-second intervals. A specially equipped Boeing 727 carries astronauts almost straight up to an altitude of about 28,000 feet and then down, at which time they experience zero gravity. The flight path is repeated 10 to 20 times, or until everyone has lost his or her lunch. Ms. Bullock reportedly feared her movie would be filmed in the “vomit comet,” but the filmmakers found other ways to simulate zero gravity.

Meanwhile, near Key Largo in the Florida Keys’ National Marine Sanctuary sits Aquarius, the world’s only undersea research station. Deployed next to coral reefs 62 feet below the surface, Aquarius provides astronauts, engineers and scientists in NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations project a glimpse of life on a space station. The aquanauts live underwater for days or weeks at a time.

Then there are the “pillownauts.”

Space agencies use bed rest studies to research the effects of weightlessness on the body, which include loss of muscle and bone density, changes in blood pressure and diminished cardiac function. Participants lie in bed 24 hours a day with their heads angled at 6 degrees below horizontal for up to 60 days at a time. All activities including eating, showers and exercise, take place in bed. Scientists monitor them to understand how their bodies change and why, and test different measures to counteract muscle and bone loss.

CAVES deep space. Image credit: ESA–V. Crobu

“The first days of each session were the worst,” says Marc Marenco, who was a pillownaut for the European Space Agency. “The body needs to adapt, and I had migraines and backaches.”

Each year, the European Space Agency runs a two-week course called CAVES (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills) in which astronauts explore the Sa Grutta caverns in Sardinia, Italy. Caves offer a dark, alien environment with many analogies to space, where senses are deprived of sounds and natural light.

Astronauts perform scientific experiments and document their underground activities while learning how to improve leadership, teamwork, communication, decision-making and problem-solving skills. “Cavewalks” are similar to spacewalks in that they require careful planning, teamwork and tethering.


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Jenny Winder

Jenny Winder is a British science writer for SEN - the Space Exploration Network,  specialising in astronomy, physics and space exploration.

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