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Season 5, Episode 12: Diving Into NASA History

Season 5Episode 12Jul 30, 2021

In honor of National Intern Day, Gravity Assist features Felicia Ragucci, an undergraduate at Dartmouth College who recently completed an internship with NASA’s History Office and the Office of the Chief Scientist. During her time at NASA, Felicia researched the history of the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, an underwater training facility where astron

Gravity Assist: Season 5 Trailer – What’s Your Gravity Assist?


In honor of National Intern Day, Gravity Assist features Felicia Ragucci, an undergraduate at Dartmouth College who recently completed an internship with NASA’s History Office and the Office of the Chief Scientist. During her time at NASA, Felicia researched the history of the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, an underwater training facility where astronauts practiced satellite repairs and other activities. Felicia explains how she researched the history of this place during her internship.

Jim Green:NASA loves interns, and we employ hundreds of them across all the activities that we do, including the history of NASA.

Felicia Ragucci:One of the big questions that was guiding my project is:

Felicia RagucciHow do we practice what we do in human space exploration?

Jim Green:Hi, I’m Jim Green. And this is a new season of Gravity Assist. We’re going to explore the inside workings of NASA in making these fabulous missions happen.

Jim Green:I’m here with Felicia Ragucci. And she is an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College. She recently completed an internship here at NASA in the History Office, and also working with the Office of Chief Scientist. NASA has always had tremendous interns, both during the summer, but also during other times of the year. They perform very important work for NASA.

Jim Green:Welcome, Felicia, to Gravity Assist.

Felicia Ragucci:Thanks, Jim. Great to be here.

Jim Green: So what actually did you do to find out that NASA needed interns, particularly in the history department?

Felicia Ragucci: So I interned during the pandemic. And it was kind of during a time when I had just finished taking classes. And then I was going to take my next term of school off. And so I was looking for an opportunity to do an internship or some other experience. And then my dad, one day, told me that NASA was looking for interns, and he saw something about it online, or in an email or something. And I was like, Oh, that’s amazing, because, you know, he knows that I love science and love space. So I looked at the application and saw that it was due. This was on a Friday, and it was due on a Monday. And I was so I was like, “Oh no, how am I gonna get this application together?” But I was able to get all my parts done. And a really wonderful professor of mine was able to send in a recommendation just in time, like one hour before the application was due.

Jim Green:Your internship project was to research a historic facility at the Marshall Space Flight Center called the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator. We also call that the NBS. Now the NBS is where astronauts train on how to perform outside work in space, but they do it here on Earth in a water tank, and I was personally a safety diver for many years there.

Jim Green:Well, how would you describe the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator?

Felicia Ragucci:So the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, it’s really cool. I wish I could see it in person. And hopefully I can one day, but since we were remote during the pandemic, I haven’t seen it yet. But basically, it is a huge water tank. It’s 43 feet deep. And I think 75 feet across, holds like 1.3 million gallons of water. And so the whole idea of this facility is to simulate weightlessness. And so the way that you do that is by achieving a state of neutral buoyancy. And I’m no physics major or anything. But neutral buoyancy is basically when an object is neither going to sink in the water or float in the water. So it’s kind of just going to hover there. And you do that by using a combination of weights and flotation devices.

Felicia Ragucci:And you can kind of wade out a suited subject who’s wearing a pressure suit, you can use little what lead weights, weigh them out till they’re neutrally buoyant, and then they’re just kind of hovering there in the water. So effectively, you’re using the tank to simulate weightlessness in space. And of course, it is a simulation. So it’s not perfect. There are things like water drag, which you’ll find in the tank, which won’t be in space. But it’s a really good simulation for how to work with objects and how to move things, heavy structures around in a zero-gravity environment here on Earth.

Jim Green:Why was the NBS so important to NASA?

Felicia Ragucci:NBS was really important to NASA because it played a role in so many critical missions that NASA has done over the years. And I didn’t even know this. So it’s really amazing to kind of dig into this history and realize that the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator played a role in so many critical missions, including, I mean, one of the first things did is it played a role in saving Skylab, which was the first space station.

Felicia Ragucci:So the NBS was used to practice the procedures for deploying, like the protective solar sail and how to save those Space Station. And they were, there were engineers actually doing those procedures in the tank at the same time as the astronauts, we’re doing them in space. So that’s one, one huge accomplishment of the NBS. And another huge thing is the design and the development of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is amazing because the Hubble Space Telescope is something that many so many people know about. And it’s one of the most productive scientific instruments that NASA or anyone has ever created. And this telescope itself was designed and then developed using the NBS. So we were able to make a serviceable telescope by working with hardware under the water in a weightless environment.

Felicia Ragucci:And that way, we were able to place handrails and foot rails on the telescope in a way that allowed astronauts to go service the telescope and which is why, you know, we serviced it so that it’s still functional today and still producing data.

Felicia Ragucci recently completed an internship at NASA Headquarters, where she researched the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator.

Jim Green:So as you gathered information about the history of the tank, you interviewed all kinds of people. What were some of the memorable stories that you ran across in your research?

Felicia Ragucci:Yeah, so the conducting oral history interviews was probably my favorite part of this history research project, because it was really fun to be able to talk to so many different people who were involved with the tank, and just really fun to talk to NASA people in general, because I think that this is definitely, yeah, they are, in general, very passionate, and I’m very eager to talk to students and people about their work.

Felicia Ragucci:So for the researching the NBS, I interviewed kind of four different categories of people. The first was engineers, also astronauts, and then divers who worked in the tank, the test conductors and other test personnel who kind of worked at the facility itself full time. So those are the four groups of people that I interviewed. And it was really, really fun to talk to engineers about the tank, because really, at its heart, the neutral buoyancy simulator was a design and development facility. So it was used for concept testing, concept development and creation. So you know, engineers would get in there, get into the pressure suit, have an idea, you know, put up, put in some hardware, some mock ups and try something out. And that’s how they would really go about engineering the structures that we find in space today.

Felicia Ragucci:I also got to speak with one astronaut, and that was George D. Nelson, who flew on the Solar Maximum repair mission. And that was a really, really fun conversation. I got to talk with him about the tank and he was telling me about his close friendship with Story Musgrave and how he passed on, kind of, all the responsibilities for taking care of the suit to George, and so how, you know, he was in charge of that as when he was in the astronaut office, and also, you know, in his dives in the NBS, and I also got to talk to him about the Solar Maximum mission and preparing for that in the tank.

Felicia Ragucci:And kind of the, the amazing things that they were able to do with the Manned Maneuvering Unit and how they demonstrated the success of that in space. And they kind of they also had an underwater mock-up of the MMU that they used in the NBS. So that really shows how, you know, side by side, you have the space, you know, doing whatever you’re doing in space, and they were able to simulate it really effectively in the water at the NPS.

Jim Green:I should mention the Solar Maximum Mission was a satellite that went awry, and it had the capability of being repaired. And indeed, that mission was spectacular, grabbing this absolutely enormous satellite, and getting it in into the shuttle bay.

Jim Green:Well, now that you know all about the history of the tank, and all the positions that the divers did, and the suited subjects, if you were going to participate in any of the NBS dives, what role would you be and what would the dive be?

Felicia Ragucci:Oh, that’s a really fun question. Oh, let me think I think. Hmm, well, if I were to go in the NBS, I think that I don’t know if I want to be the suited subject just because that seems like it’s a very high pressure roll, and also a bit claustrophobic. So I think of being in the pressure suit might be a little difficult for me, even though it would be really fun. So I think that I would want to be there’s a whole network of divers that were really critical to all of the NBS dives. You know, you had safety divers, water safety divers, photo divers, utility divers who were setting up the hardware in the mock ups.

Felicia Ragucci:So I might want to be a photo diver and you know, holding one of these underwater cameras, and videotaping the whole test from start to finish, which they did, because that was the data that each test produced. And so you get this whole video of the test. And you’d be able to extract from that, you know, the important the important knowledge about the spacewalk and about the equipment that they were engineering. So I think being a photo diver would be really fun. And then I’d be able to see, you know, the test from start to finish.

Felicia Ragucci: Jim, I know that you yourself, were a diver in the tank. So can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jim Green: Yeah, I had wonderful memories, many wonderful dives between 1980 and 1985. I did about 150 dives in the neutral buoyancy tank. But my position was as safety diver. So I was responsible for the life of the person in the suit, whether it was an engineer or an astronaut. And indeed, I had a wonderful opportunity to wade them out, I could do that rather quickly.

Jim Green: In three minutes, I could get them neutrally buoyant, put them in any position, let them go, and they would stay there, they wouldn’t rise or fall or their roll over on their back, completely neutral, and then take them down to their station where they needed to do their work.

Jim Green: And then watch them as they as they did their work. And as they got into more complicated dives, really ensure that they were always safe and always ready for, for me to step in and, and help them any way necessary to make their job successful. So those dives were great. And I certainly enjoyed that time. And unfortunately, I had to leave in 1985 and go to my next job, which was at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Felicia Ragucci:Yeah, definitely all the divers and people that I talked to always say that they have great memories about diving in the tank. So it seems to be a very fondly remembered thing by lots of folks at NASA.

Jim Green:Well, it really is, when you think about it, you’re watching the development or the procedures they’re going to use in space, where they’re really trying to make something happen, where it doesn’t always work, right, where they have to figure out what the next steps are. And it’s like being there, it’s like being you know, in a suit, watching them, supervising them, in terms of making something happen, like repairing a satellite. And so this really connects all the divers with the human exploration in space.

Jim Green: You know, and they know the essential part of what they do in the tank is fundamental process of getting these people ready to repair or build structures, and make really something important happen in space. And that’s been going on since the late 60s. And it’s just been tremendously successful. This is one of the reasons why human exploration has done what it’s done. And we’re in space. For the last 20 years, we’ve had somebody in space on the International Space Station, which we built. And many of those operations were practiced in the tank.

Felicia Ragucci:Yep. And that couldn’t have been done without all the divers and all the people who volunteered. So they definitely played an incredible, incredible role.

Jim Green:Well, in addition to the interviews, you had an opportunity to look over a variety of material. What was the most important material that you uncovered in the history of the NBS?

Felicia Ragucci:Yeah, so for the material that I worked with, it spanned you know, written papers and reports that were written about the NBS. Also a lot of photographic evidence. So there were tons and tons of pictures of the of the all the dives that happened in the NBS and so there’s an online archive of those. So I’ve worked with those photos, as well. is these photos stored at the at Marshall Space Flight Center. But I think one of the most important sources that I worked with was this newsletter, this archived, archived issues of a newsletter that was weekly newsletter that was published at Marshall called the Marshall star. And so we had archived issues of that newsletter from 1968, all the way to 1997, which could span the entire lifetime of the tank.

Jim Green: And so using that archive of these newsletter issues, I was able to go through and kind of really extract a pretty comprehensive history of the tank, and the who was there, what test they were doing, when it was happening, and any other important news about the tank. And using that information from that archive, I created a 60 page timeline, which kind of covered like, all the basics about the tank and what happened at it. And then from there, we were able to use that to kind of cross reference other sources, figure out dates and times. And people who came to the tank so that that source was was really invaluable to my project.

Jim Green: Well, as you say, this was the first tank that NASA had starting in the late 60s. But as you also mentioned, it was no longer in use after 1997. What happened to it?

Felicia Ragucci: Yeah, so the story of the decommission of the tank, I think, gets a little tricky. So you have the tank at Marshall, which is the neutral buoyancy simulator, the NBS, which is really being used for engineering design and development. But then you also have simultaneously there is a series of tanks, Johnson as well. One was like the weightless environment training facility, then now today, it is the NBL. So the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, which is much larger than the NBS. And so that’s kind of the tank that’s been in use since the NBS got decommissioned in 1997.

Felicia Ragucci: And that tank is really used more for astronaut training. So a lot of the people I talked to who worked and dove in the NBS, thought it was really unfortunate that the tank was decommissioned, because it really was playing a different role, as opposed to the NBL at Johnson. So it really was at Marshall about engineering, design, development and concept creation. And that type of work is really important to conduct when we’re figuring out how to do new things in space and pioneering new missions.

Jim Green:Well, how do you think the history of the NBS really relates to the history of NASA as a whole?

Felicia Ragucci:Yeah, so the history of the NBS, I think, I think it’s really important, because kind of one of the big questions that was guiding my project is kind of a simple question. But you when you start to think about it, it’s really important. And that question is, how do we practice what we do in human space exploration? That’s kind of what NASA is all about. And what the agency is all about is putting humans in space and exploring space in different ways using technology, and engineering and science. And so the tank really encapsulates that idea. And it’s all about practicing for that human space exploration, creating new missions, creating new concepts, and testing them out to make sure that, that when we send people and astronauts into space, that they’re going to be safe, that they have procedures, and they have the tools necessary to do what they need to do safely. So I think that the NBS is really, really captures NASA’s mission.

Jim Green: You know, in terms of doing all this research and accumulating all this fantastic information. What do you think the next step should be to preserve the concepts of the neutral buoyancy tank that was done at Marshall?

Felicia Ragucci: Yeah, so the neutral buoyancy tank, I believe that the facility itself, I mean, it’s been decommissioned since 1997. And I believe that the facility is going to be tore down or destroyed, unfortunately, so but I think even without the physical facility itself, there are definitely ways to preserve the knowledge that was gained from it.

Felicia Ragucci: The main data that was collected from the NBS was these videotapes of all these different tests. And then there the various offices that worked in conjunction with the tank and kind of kept all that data and have the marshal so I think that, that that data and all the pictures and the photos and the videos from the tank should definitely be preserved. And especially since neutral buoyancy isn’t a dead concept, it’s still being done. It’s just being done at Johnson now and also at various other space agencies. So neutral buoyancy is really widely used. And so definitely the data and the lessons that we learned should be kept.

Felicia Ragucci: And the other thing too is this came up in one of the interviews that I had with an engineer, but he was talking about technology transfer and how you kind of transfer technology and science to different people. And he said that the way to do that is not to disseminate the technology, but to disseminate the people who worked with it. So I think that the NBS was really great, because it brought so many people together from across NASA, they were, you know, all these all the divers who worked at the tank were volunteers from the center.

Felicia Ragucci: So they thought they had different day jobs, and then they would all come together and dive in the tank so that they would able to, they would be able to meet new people and work on different missions. And they take those lessons with them. So I think that’s, that’s another key concept too.

Jim Green: Well, I think you’ll be happy to learn that you’ve accumulated so much great information, that indeed, we’ve started the process of getting a major historian to write up the history based on the material that you put together. And that historian is Roger Launius, who is well known throughout all of NASA, and in the history of space. So congratulations on all that very hard work that you did, it’s going to really pay off into, I think, a really great book about the neutral buoyancy simulator.

Felicia Ragucci: Well, thanks. Yeah, it’s great to hear, and thanks for all the support that I had during the internship. And I think it’s great that it’s going to be put into an E book. And you know, hopefully, then it’s really accessible to so many people, and they can learn about the history of the tank, which makes all the missions of so many of the missions that we know about possible.

Jim Green:So Felicia, how does your internship relate to what you’re going to be doing next?

Felicia Ragucci: That is a wonderful question. My internship came at a really a really interesting time, I guess during the pandemic. I was really, really feel fortunate to have had such a wonderful opportunity and so during my internship was over a period of months when I took up some extra time from school. So I’m currently an undergraduate right now, and I have about six terms of schooling left before I graduate. So I definitely do not know exactly what I want to do still, after I graduate, but I think it will be something that combines Humanities and Sciences in some way.

Felicia Ragucci: And so that’s why I really enjoyed this internship experience where, you know, my position was working with both the Office of the Chief Scientist and also the history office. So, you know, it’s really been great to have more and more experiences as I get older, that show me that those two things are intertwined. And it’s not sciences are separate from humanities, but the two things are really intertwined and depend on one another.

Felicia Ragucci: And I think this podcast and what you do, Jim is a great example of that, because you’re doing, you know, science communication, and in telling the public about the science and everything that goes on at NASA, which I think is really important. So science, communication is definitely a field that I would consider, along with other things like medicine, or other things like that. So we will see, but I think this internship has really taught me a lot and helped me develop skills, both in sciences and humanities that I’ll use in the future.

Jim Green:Well, Felicia, I always like to ask my guests to tell me what was that event person place or thing that got them so excited that they ended up working at NASA? I call that event a gravity assist. So Felicia, what was your gravity assist?

Felicia Ragucci:So I was thinking about this question and trying to think back to back to my past and younger days and think about something that got me interested in science and in space exploration. And one memory that has always stuck with me is watching. It was a special on Nova, I think it was the Fabric of the Cosmos with Brian Greene, the physicist, and it was like a four part special or something like that. That was on Nova and, and I remember watching that, and just being so fascinated, because I was pretty young.

Felicia Ragucci: And he was talking about, you know, quantum physics and all these sorts of crazy things that happened in that world. So I think that really could capture anyone’s imagination. And it definitely did mine and, and I would also credit my dad too, because he’s a doctor. So he’s a scientist. And he has, you know, he’s been a really great inspiration and just seeing him work in his his, like, seeing his example has always gotten me interested in science and curious about the world around me. So yeah, that’s my gravity assist.

Jim Green: Okay, sounds great. Well, Felicia, thanks so much for joining me in discussing your fantastic work supporting NASA.

Felicia Ragucci: Thanks for having me.

Jim Green: Well, join me next time as we continue our journey to look under the hood at NASA and see how we do what we do. I’m Jim Green, and this is your Gravity Assist.


Lead producer: Elizabeth Landau

Audio engineer: Manny Cooper