Suggested Searches

Neutral Buoyancy

Season 1Episode 146May 29, 2020

Kristie Melass and Jim Fuderer, Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory divers, describe life as part of the underwater diving teams that help astronauts train for spacewalks. HWHAP Episode 146.

Neutral Buoyancy

Neutral Buoyancy

If you’re fascinated by the idea of humans traveling through space and curious about how that all works, you’ve come to the right place.

“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.

On Episode 146, Kristie Melass and Jim Fuderer, Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory divers, describe life as part of the underwater diving teams that help astronauts train for spacewalks. This episode was recorded on February 18, 2020.

Houston, we have a podcast


Gary Jordan: (Host): Houston we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 146, “Neutral Buoyancy.” I’m Gary Jordan and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. We’ve talked about spacewalking a lot on this podcast. This is where astronauts get in their pressurized spacesuits, so they can go outside of a spacecraft. Nowadays, on the International Space Station, they’re usually doing a maintenance task, like swapping out a battery, routing a cable, or upgrading external Wi-Fi. Most recently, astronauts prepared a complicated particle physics experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Throughout human spaceflight history, spacewalks have been integral in their success. From the construction of the International Space Station, through the servicing missions of the Hubble Space Telescope. These achievements would not be possible without well trained astronauts going out of hatch and performing these complicated tasks. Astronauts are able to do this in space, thanks to the training on Earth. But there’s nothing quite like floating in microgravity on Earth. So, exactly how do you train them? It turns out, one of the best places to do it, underwater. And underwater in a specially neutrally buoyant way. Not necessarily sinking or floating. Just right in that Goldilocks zone. There’s a facility very close to the Johnson Space Center here in Houston called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. The NBL. Sometimes also called the Sonny Carter Training Facility. We’ll get into why. But it’s a giant pool with one to one scale mockups of the space station in the water. And it’s used constantly for astronaut training. But it’s not just astronauts in the pool. There are divers holding cameras and aiding the astronauts and working with the control teams in the facility that are sort of like the mission control we all know and love, but for training in the pool. So, today, we’re sitting down with two NBL divers to tell us how this training works. And what life is like working closely with astronauts underwater as a living. Is it a cool job? Spoiler alert — yes. Yes, it is. Here’s life as an NBL diver with two NBL divers, Jim Fuderer and Kristie Melass. Enjoy.

[ Music ]

Host: Jim and Kristie, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today.

Jim Fuderer: Thank you very much.

Kristie Melass:Yeah, thank you for having us.

Jim Fuderer: It’s a pleasure being here.

Host: Yeah. I wanted to know about what it takes to be a Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory diver. And go into not only that, but just what is this Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory? We’ve had a lot of podcasts so far. Talked about this place. But like at a super high level. So, I really wanted to understand exactly what’s going on in this facility. But I want to start about with your backgrounds. Jim, we’ll start with you. Just how did you get to becoming an NBL diver?

Jim Fuderer: Well, my story coming into the NBL is a little different than most of the people that you’ll talk to. But I was never actually hired to be a diver at the NBL.

Host: Oh.

Jim Fuderer: I was initially brought in to do water survival training. I worked offshore for 25 years as a commercial diver. And the company that I worked for went bankrupt. So, then, I went back offshore. And started working again. And it just by chance happened that they had an opening. And I, that’s how I actually came into the NBL.

Host: But you had diving experience?

Jim Fuderer: I’d been diving since I’ve been a little boy. Yeah. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done.

Host: What fascinated you about it?

Jim Fuderer: Jacques Cousteau.

Host: Oh, explorers.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau. Yeah. I wanted to be a member of the Calypso. That’s what I wanted to do. [Laughter]. So.

Host: Cool. Any diving tricks from your career that really kind of stick out? Just, wow, this is fascinating? This is amazing moment?

Jim Fuderer: Well, this is, I — have a diving story. I have diving stories that would probably turn most of your listeners into weeping babies if I was to tell you some of the stuff I’ve gone through.

Host: Because it really is, I mean when you’re diving, there is a lot of safety considerations that comes to the. It’s a scary place. You’re putting your life on the line almost when you’re doing this.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: There’s a lot of safety considerations when you’re doing it.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. And I’ve done some really, really extreme deep-sea diving.

Host: Extreme deep-sea diving. Wow. So, Kristie, what about you?

Jim Fuderer: Yeah, yeah.

Kristie Melass:So, I started out as a marine biology major in college. And I got my certification through that, through school. My first dive was actually while I was in college before I was even certified. My then boyfriend, who’s my now husband, took me to the Virgin Islands and I did my first dive there. And I absolutely fell in love with it. And thought this is what I need to be doing with my life. [Laughter]. So, it’s a good thing I was in marine biology. I graduated from there in 2001. And unfortunately, didn’t get to work in that field because I got married and decided to have babies. [Laughter]. I have two children. And I was a stay at home mom for a long time. And then, about nine years ago decided to go back to work part time as soon as the kids got into school full time. And I had extra time on my hands. So, I worked part time at the Downtown Aquarium as a diver.

Host: Oh.

Kristie Melass:And loved it. Loved working with the animals. I did that a couple days a week. And a couple of people that I worked with there actually went to work for the NBL. And they recruited me pretty much.

Host: How about that?

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: Wow.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: Yeah. What was it about just marine life and diving that really? Was it the same thing? Just it’s this whole new world to explore.

Kristie Melass:Oh, yeah. I mean it’s just a whole new world. You go down there. And you forget about your life on land.

Host: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:For a little while. You know, it’s very meditative. It’s very relaxing. It’s just the exploration of it all, like Jim said. And it’s just fascinating to me.

Jim Fuderer: It’s therapeutic.

Kristie Melass:It’s very therapeutic.

Host: What, what about it is therapeutic? Is it? Because I’ve never, I’ve never gone diving before. So, is it, is it just like you’re listening to the ocean? Is it just, it’s just you?

Kristie Melass:You hear your breathing. And you have to really. There are so many things that you have to think about at one time. You know, you’re concerned with your air pressure. You’re concerned with your buddy that you’re with. Making sure everyone’s safe. You’re concentrating on breathing. You’re not supposed to hold your breath while you dive. So, you’re focusing on breathing in and out. And it’s just. You don’t have time to think about the other worries that you have in your life. You’re just focused on that one task that you’re doing. And that’s what makes it meditative, I think.

Host: Yeah. It’s that focus. Yeah. And, and that separation from the normal stresses of life.

Kristie Melass:Right.

Host: You’re just in the moment.

Kristie Melass:Exactly.

Host: Yeah. So, tell me, you said you left Aquarium. And you went to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Let’s go into that. So, what is this facility that we’re going to be talking about today?

Kristie Melass:So, it is a weightless training environment for our astronauts. It’s named after Sonny Carter, who was an astronaut. He started out, in college he was a chemist. And then, he went on to get his doctorate. He was an internist for a while, a physician. And then, he, while he was in college, actually, he played soccer. He went on to play professional soccer for a few seasons for the Atlanta Chiefs. And after that, he went to the U.S. Navy. He was a test pilot for the Navy. He eventually got brought on as an astronaut. And unfortunately, he died in a commercial airline crash. So, it was around that time that they had, NASA had purchased this facility to put the NBL in, that he passed away. So, they ended up naming the facility after him.

Host: Yeah. Did he do some NBL. Did he do some dive training while he was an astronaut?

Jim Fuderer: No, I don’t think so. I’ve never read anything.

Kristie Melass:I haven’t heard anything about that either.

Jim Fuderer: Then again, I might be, I don’t know. I’ve never heard of him —

Host: Yeah. I guess we. Yeah, we can check in on that for sure —

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: — But to see. Yeah. So, it’s named after him. And it’s the, what’s in the facility? Because we’re talking about diving, right? So, obviously there’s some water there.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. We have a giant pool.

Host: Yeah. [Laughter].

Kristie Melass:It’s 40 feet deep. It’s 202 feet long by 102 feet wide. And it contains 6.2 million gallons of water.

Host: That’s a lot of water.

Kristie Melass:It’s a big pool. If you think about your average backyard pool, it’s around 20 to 30,000 gallons of water, maybe. This is 6.2 million gallons.

Host: Yeah. A number of pools. Wow. [Laughter].

Kristie Melass:Yeah. It’s, it’s 20 feet below ground and 20 feet above ground. And it houses a mockup of the International Space Station.

Host: So, that’s what’s in the pool.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: It’s the, it’s the mockup of the space station. Now, why do you need this pool? What is so good about putting space station mockups underwater?

Jim Fuderer: It’s the closest environment that we have here to be able to simulate what the astronauts are going be feeling when they get in space.

Host: OK. So, it’s, it’s like if you want to practice on how to do a spacewalk. If you want suit up. You want to do it in an environment that is the closest to microgravity as possible. Because. And then, use the mockups as a way to sort of say, this is what you can expect when you go into space. You can expect this layout, you can expect this feeling, you have to use these movements. I guess, that’s the idea?

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. For a lot of the test subjects coming in, it’s, especially seen with the new class of astronauts that just graduated. For a lot of them, it’s, it’s a whole, whole new experience. Diving in itself is a whole new experience. Just being able to come in and just take the concept of being weightless inside a suit. And manipulating yourself and doing tasks. For the average person, that’s something that’s never been done before. I mean it really is a very unique experience.

Host: OK. So, what. I guess we have this giant pool. I’m guessing that takes up most of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, the facility itself. What else is there around there?

Jim Fuderer: We have the fabrication lab or the [Logistics and Mockup Facility] LMF right next door where everything that’s in the bottom of the pool is actually fabricated right there on-site.

Host: Oh, right next door. How about that?

Jim Fuderer: Right next door, yeah, so. And I’ve worked over there before. That was pretty cool. And then, we have the high bays. What else we got going on? There’s the suit lab that’s there. The tool lab is there.

Host: Is that all for the Neutral Buoyancy, the suits are for the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory? Or are they just like, they’re actually like certified spacesuits?

Kristie Melass:They’re for the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:They were flight suits that have been worn in space. But have since been downgraded to a class three suit.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:So, they’re now used in the pool.

Host: Got it. Yeah. You have to have a certain level of quality, a certain level of classification to fly in space.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: But there is a certain safety for going underwater, just it, you know, you can use those suits.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. That’s correct.

Host: OK. And then, of course, you have, there’s almost like a mission control that’s close by too, right?

Kristie Melass:Yeah. It’s overlooking the pool. It’s on the second, or the top level of the building. But there’s windows where you can see from that control room everything that’s happening in the pool. And then, obviously, they have all the monitors in there. And we have three different people that sit in there while a test is going on. And a test is just a suited run. That’s what we call it. So, you have your camera video operator, sits up there. And your test director, who is in charge of the day’s operations. The test director gives instructions to everyone involved in getting the astronaut suited up for the day. And then, he also gives instructions to the safety divers while the astronauts are getting in the water up until the point when the weigh out is done. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that later. And then, after the weigh out is done, then the test controller, who is sitting in a different room right next door, takes over. And gives the subjects their instructions for the day. And then, the third person that you have sitting up in the control room is the ECS operator, or the Environment Control Systems operator. And that person is in charge of operating and monitoring the life support system that goes to the suits through the day.

Host: OK. So, there’s, there’s a lot of elements to — I guess we talked about what’s in the pool. And then, obviously, we’re going to get to the fact that you are divers in the pool. But, in terms of what’s done in the pool, I guess you’re, you’re simulating a spacewalk or some activity on the outside of the space station of some kind. And the job of those, I guess flight controllers in this instance, is to like look over the tests, make sure everyone’s following the procedures. But then, also, to remind everyone of the safeties and protocols of what goes on to make sure the test itself is going to be done right.

Jim Fuderer: Sure. And for certain runs they come in and they’re working on choreographing, for actually when they get to space, they’ll start doing their checklists, writing procedures, choreographing working through any kind of problems. It’s kind of getting their test run before they actually, you know, find themselves in space working through these problems.

Host: OK.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:For example, the AMS runs that they just did.

Host: Oh, yeah.

Kristie Melass:I know you guys have talked a little bit about that on this podcast. And from the day I was hired, I’ve seen AMS runs in the pool. And so, for a good two years, they were perfecting those runs in the pool over and over. And they’d get in. And a lot of it is just R&D. You know, they’re trying to develop their runs. And see how long it’ll take. And smush it down into the time frames that they have allowable. So, it was really interesting to see the processes and the development of those AMS runs in the pool. And they just recently were successful in doing those runs in space.

Host: And what’s funny is, you know, like when we were following along with those procedures what they were doing, it seemed like, alright, here we go. We’re just going to do this. And that’s exactly what they did. And then, they left. And, you know, six hours later or whatever you’re thinking, huh, that looked easy. But you know it wasn’t. Because you heard about how, how long it took to really perfect those runs. They had to go in the pool. And they had to think about every angle. And how to use different things. And the techniques to use. There’s a lot of work that went into that.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: And you were part of that then?

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: OK. So, tell me, let’s, let’s go into the role of an NBL diver. So, take me through. Let’s, let’s use the AMS run as an example. Take me through, you’re about do a procedure for what will eventually be the repair mission for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. What does your day look like as an NBL diver?

Kristie Melass:It depends on what you’re doing that day.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:So, the divers have several different roles. There are so many people involved in a one-day operation that it just depends on the day. But for example, let’s pretend it’s an AMS run. And Jim and I are safety divers on that run. So, we would come into work that day. We would check the schedule. We would get our gear together. So, we wear two tanks on our backs at a time. We breathe a blend of nitrox, which is a higher percentage of oxygen than regular air. So, you could scuba dive on regular air, which is 21 percent oxygen. But at some point, you have to do a decompression stop. So, the nitrox that we breathe is a blend of 46 percent oxygen. So, that allows us to stay down longer. And not have any decompression limits.

Host: Oh.

Kristie Melass:So, we wear those two tanks filled with the nitrox blend on our back. And after we are done setting up, we get our physical for the day. We have to have a physical every day. Sign a sheet that says we’re in good health. After we do that, we go up and we sign the dive suits checklists. So, the dive supervisor is there, making sure all the divers are checked in. Making sure they, they all have enough pressure in their tanks. Just monitor. The dive suit monitors all the daily activities on the pool deck and in the pool, as well as the people upstairs.

Jim Fuderer: See and with that — on a day like today, Kristie could be a dive supervisor that day. So.

Host: Oh.

Jim Fuderer: Everybody has multiple positions there that you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing on that particular day.

Host: So, that’s part of the checking the schedule, like first thing in the morning.

Jim Fuderer: Exactly.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: What am I going to be doing? What mindset do I have to be in?

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: And it sounds like a lot of it is making sure that you’re ready, right? You have to do the physical. You have to make sure, like, you’re prepared. And then, that your equipment is ready. That your tanks are filled. That you have all your gear ready to go. So, that’s, that seems like the majority of the beginning of the day.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: Now, you said you, that you use the nitrox mix to stay under longer. So, what are we talking about here? Are you down there the whole time during? Because the runs can be like six hours long.

Kristie Melass:They stay in there for six hours at a time.

Host: Wow.

Kristie Melass:We have three teams of divers that get in throughout the day.

Host: OK. There it is.

Kristie Melass:So, if Jim and I go in and we’re the first team of divers, we get in for two hours. And then, we have a second team of divers who comes and relieves us in the middle of the day. So, we would dive, say we would get out around 11 o’clock. And they would get in at 11. They would dive for their two hours. And then, we would go take showers, eat lunch, get rehydrated, reenergized. And then, we would get back in the pool for the third shift.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:So.

Jim Fuderer: Which jumps around 13:10.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: OK. Yeah. So, you’re. Wow. That’s a busy day.

Kristie Melass:That’s a busy day.

Host: A lot of checking. And then, just knowing you’re going to go right, right back into it.

Kristie Melass:That’s correct.

Host: So, what happens when you’re underwater?

Jim Fuderer: You. Is. Depending on what position you’re filling on a particular role for the dive. If you’re safety divers, your primary goal to your test subjects is to be invisible space. You’re to be there but, not to let them know that you’re there. You’re there for their safety. And just to assist them with anything for 1 g just to help them. And just kind of, again, you’re, you’re. The best way I could ever explain it to anybody is you’re just there to be space for them, safety and space. They go to handle a tool, it doesn’t float in the pool. You kind of, you magically, you lift it up for them. And you just try to do the very best that you can to make them feel like they are actually floating in space.

Host: OK. So, yeah. Watching over them. And just making sure they don’t have any signs that somethings wrong. Is that part of the safety part of it?

Jim Fuderer: Sure. Because the astronauts themselves, when they get in the suit they’re already diving before they get in the pool. So, we’re looking to get ahead of the game there. They’re already subjected to pressure before they get in the water. And then, they’re subjected to pressure again. So, again, it’s for us to be, not only being space for them and being aware of what’s going on and what’s listening, you know, what’s happening in the suit to the test subjects themselves.

Host: And the other part you said was you’re almost trying to give them the extra simulation of what space would actually be like.

Jim Fuderer: Sure.

Host: How do you? How do you train for that?

Jim Fuderer: Practice. [Laughter]. It is. And it’s, you. Some — test subjects need a little bit more than others. You talked about SEALs earlier, Chris Cassidy, which I think is who everybody should aim to be at as far as an astronaut.

Host: [Laughter]. Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: You get a weigh out on him and he’s pretty much like, just leave me alone. And I’ll take care of it for the rest of the day. Some of the other ones, they need a little bit more help. And that’s what you’re there for. To be invisible to them. And just assist them and help them the best they can.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:A lot of it is getting to know their personalities.

Jim Fuderer: Personalities, yeah.

Kristie Melass:And who likes different things. Like, Jim was saying, if you go to help Cassidy with something and he doesn’t want your help, he literally slap your hand away.

Host: So, you’re building the basic skills of how to help, if you need it. But otherwise, it’s knowing who you’re dealing with and working with them.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: So, tell me about Kristie coming on for the first time. And starting to dive. And starting to learn some of this stuff. Like, safety diving and pushing up the drill if he’s dropping it. Those sorts of skills.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. It takes a minute to really —

Host: Yeah.

Kristie Melass: — figure out how to anticipate their needs. For instance, when they go to turn their body into a different position, you want to watch their hand placement. And how they’re placing their hands. So that, you know which direction they’re about to rotate. And when they rotate that direction, typically you’ll want to pull their feet up in that direction that they’re going. So that, it’s not too hard for them. We don’t want them getting any shoulder injuries. They do wear weight packs on their feet. They do wear a weight pack on their lower back and their upper back and their chest. So, we always, we don’t want them to inadvertently go heads down. So, we always want their feet to be a little heavier than normal. So, we assist them a lot with holding their feet up if they get in different orientations. So, just learning how to anticipate those movements that they’re about to do. It takes a little practice. And like Jim said, a lot of it is just holding up heavy things for them. A lot of times they’ll be translating along structure with a heavy bag with a bunch of tools in it attached to their [Body Restraint Tether] BRT. So, we’re there to just offset the weight of that bag. So that, it doesn’t feel like it’s pulling them down or dragging them down. So that, it’s easy for them to translate. You have to learn how to kind of help them along. If they’re translating, some of them say the water drag is just too unrealistic. It’s not flight-like. You know, just kind of push me along a little bit if it looks like I’m struggling. And so, we’ll kind of help them along structure.

Jim Fuderer: They have an umbilical, which they don’t have in space. So, that’s another thing that we’re handling is, is moving the umbilical along. And again, making it transparent to them while they’re in a suit.

Host: Yeah. Because in, in space they won’t have to worry about that umbilical. So, you have to.

Jim Fuderer: Exactly.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: Yeah, you’re moving that out of the way for them.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: That’s actually a part that I think we should address is like what’s going on with the suits. Why you do have to help them in a certain way. So, we talked about that there is a suit lab that’s meant for these suits that are going underwater. They’re sort of like extravehicular mobility units. But they have umbilical.

Jim Fuderer: They are.

Host: Oh, they are?

Jim Fuderer: Well yeah, I mean it’s a — vehicle.

Kristie Melass:Yeah, they are EMUs.

Jim Fuderer: We bolt that in the suits. So, we can, we can tell you what it’s like. It’s a vehicle. You’re in there and you’re driving a suit is what you’re doing.

Host: You’ve been in the suit. What’s that like?

Jim Fuderer: Oh, it’s awesome. [Laughter]. I recommend anybody try it if you get the chance. [Laughter]. Yeah.

Kristie Melass:He’s just saying that because he was really good at it. [Laughter].

Host: OK. Well, what it is — so, tell me about that. Getting in the suit and working with it.

Jim Fuderer: Well, the, from what part? All the way from the fit process. Or to actually fly in the suit?

Host: I guess on the day of the NBL run. We can take a step back after that. But on the day, you’re actually going to do the run.

Jim Fuderer: Oh. See it was, it was great. It was — everything that you’ve seen up and to that point, you finally get into the suit. And you’ve seen, you’ve seen test subjects struggle. You’ve seen some sore. Like Chris Cassidy again, you’ve seen him do some things in the suit. I’m a big fan of Chris Cassidy, by the way. [Laughter]. So, I’m going to say that. True. Must respect for that guy. But you get in. And now, you understand. And you, how you manipulate the suit. And when I say you’re driving the suit, you are driving the suit. And the next step, which I would love to find out, is to what it’s actually like float inside the suit when you’re in space. Never will happen. But when you’re there, there’s a lot of things that you can do, as far as throwing yourself around in the suit. Not, not, I don’t mean necessarily violent. But shifts in the weight. How you get up on your toes. And how you can manipulate all that stuff. How you can fix your own weigh out.

Host: When you get up there, meaning up in space? There’s like different techniques you can use?

Jim Fuderer: Well, yeah. In space, for sure. In the pool.

Host: In the pool.

Jim Fuderer: Oh, yeah. For sure, in the pool.

Host: OK.

Jim Fuderer: There’s, there’s ways that you can get in that suit and you can manipulate that stuff. And you can, you can drive that suit. You really can.

Kristie Melass:You’re still fighting gravity when you’re in the pool —

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:— inside the suit. So, the suit is almost like a balloon. And your body is just an object inside that pressurized suit. And your body moves around inside the suit depending on which direction you’re facing. If you’re on your side, your body’s going to fall to that side inside the suit. Because there’s room in the suit if you don’t fill it totally out, which mostly people don’t.

Jim Fuderer: So, when you do that, you figure out, OK, I got to, I got to bend the knee and lift the leg up on the opposite side to get the suit to kind of tilt this way. There’s a lot of things going on there. And it helps a lot now with test subjects when you get in there. Because now you can kind of see the struggle —

Host: Because you’ve been in it. Now, you know what the struggle.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: You kind of know what they’re going through.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:Exactly.

Host: So, I heard for the, speaking about those Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer spacewalks. I heard when they were building a mockup to go on the bottom of the pool to work with it. They built it in different configurations, thinking like, OK, if they’re in space they’re going to be at this angle. But that angle in the pool, they’d kind of be on their side. And they’d be falling up against the side of the suit, which is not a problem that we should have to deal with —

Kristie Melass:Right.

Host: — for actually working with this. So, they built it in different configurations, so they could be a little bit more upright and a little bit more comfortable.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. That was a really tight worksite. It was really hard for all of us to get in there.

Jim Fuderer: That was always very interesting diving right there too.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Not as a safety divers, once you get your test subject in the [Articulating Portable Foot Restraint] APFR. And they were — working on the tubing inside the next big thing. And it’s one of the positions on the diving side, where everybody kind of fluffs off the float position. But floats, the guy who has a camera that documents everything. And in those particular runs, it was always they needed the footage to see for training. And to actually watch what was going on hands on. Because the camera on the helmet only gives you so much. And then, you can back up and get the next level with the float camera. Trying to get yourself in there and not get in everybody’s way and trying to get a good shot. And it was a very, very tight work spot when they were going to work on the tubing.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. If you’ve got two astronauts in the pool. That’s eight divers at a minimum.

Jim Fuderer: Pretty much.

Kristie Melass:That are helping them out.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. And not much more room than what we’re sitting at, at this table right here. Yeah.

Host: So, we talked about some of safety divers and their role. It sounds like there’s camera divers too.

Jim Fuderer: Float divers. Yeah.

Host: Float divers, that’s what they’re called?

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: OK. Now, is that the, is that the full completement there? Safety divers and float divers. And that’s, that’s your eight?

Kristie Melass:Nope. We’ve got utility divers also.

Host: Utility divers.

Kristie Melass:So, each astronaut has two safety divers, a utility diver and a camera diver assigned to that subject.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:The utility divers kind of flip flop back and forth between subjects. And help each other out a lot. But the safety divers are assigned to a certain subject. And they stay on those. And the float divers are assigned to a certain subject.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:And they stay on those the whole time.

Host: Stay on the. So, the float divers they have a camera. And they have their person.

Kristie Melass:Yep.

Host: And they’re training that camera on the person.

Kristie Melass:That’s right.

Host: Now, what is the utility diver do?

Kristie Melass:The utility diver does a lot of things. The utility diver gets in and sets up the worksite for that days run. Or the next days run. It’s a lot of reconfiguration of the pool. We move certain things around depending on what’s going to be happening the next day or the day of. And they go get the tools that that astronaut needs. And they move around the hi-fi APFR’s.

Jim Fuderer: They’re grunts.

Host: They’re the APFR, that’s the foot restraint?

Kristie Melass:Right.

Host: So, they’re moving it. They’re basically getting the worksite ready for the day.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. And while they’re working, a lot of times they’ll have to move APFR’s from one location to the next location. And the subject can’t move the hi-fi APFR’s because they’re so heavy. You have to use a little lift bag to move them sometimes.

Host: Oh, wow.

Kristie Melass:So, the utility divers will do that for them. And basically, just have the tools ready to go. And swap out lo-fi for hi-fi tools. What I mean by that is, we have two versions of tools that they use. We have a lo-fi and a hi-fi. The lo-fi is made of plastic. And it essentially floats or is neutral in the pool for the most part. And the hi-fi tools are very heavy. And they’re made of either aluminum, titanium, or stainless steel. And the reason for that is when the astronauts are translating, we don’t want them to be translating with really heavy tools that are going to pull them down. We want them —

Jim Fuderer: Which is something that you’re carrying with them too, so.

Kristie Melass:Right.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah, yeah.

Kristie Melass:Helps us out too.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:So, they will translate with their lo-fi tools, the plastic ones that don’t weigh anything. And then, or they’ll have them on their mini workstation. And then, when they go to use them, the utility diver will swap out the lo-fi for the hi-fi. So, they can actually use the hi-fi working tool.

Host: Lo-fi is really just to understand, while you’re translating moving, while you’re moving across the outside of the space station, it’s just to have a feel for what it feels like to have those tools around you.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: And you talk about your mini workstation. This is the workstation right in front of you. So, you’ve got all these tools attached to you. That’s how you carry it in space. So, just to get a feel for that. But actually, working with it, now that’s a different thing.

Kristie Melass:That’s right.

Host: Actually, having like a drill to drill that actually is going to turn and do the things that you expect it to do.

Kristie Melass:Exactly.

Host: Now, I know that one thing that comes to mind when it comes to the drill is like torque. So, is there. You know, you talked about having a heavy tool and basically pushing it up being one of the elements. Is there an element of whenever they’re drilling to simulate that torque and the spin that they may encounter in space? Is there anything like that?

Kristie Melass:Not in the pool that I’ve seen.

Jim Fuderer: Not in the pool.

Kristie Melass:No.

Jim Fuderer: No.

Jim Fuderer: We do. The test subjects do carry a lo-fi [Pistol Grip Tool] PGT. And then, when they get on location, they’ll bring that out again. That’s one of the things the safety divers, the utility divers, they’ll bring it out the one that they’re carrying with them. And they’ll swap over to a hi-fi PGT. Then, you turn.

Host: That’s that — That’s that drill. Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Try to make the handoff just as if, you know, it came out their hand, boom it’s in their hand again. And then, go ahead and engage in whatever, whatever they’re working on.

Kristie Melass:That’s one of the issues is that the water drag in the pool is the opposite of what’s going to happen in space. So.

Host: Oh, yeah.

Kristie Melass:That’s one of the issues. So, in space, it’ll be really easy for them to move along. And stopping would be the challenging thing. Or staying stationary would be the challenging part in space. In the pool, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s really easy for them to stay stationary.

Host: Just to get moving. They got to press up against that drag.

Kristie Melass:Right.

Host: Interesting. So, Jim, you talked about fitting for the suit. We talked about being in the suit for, for them. Now, what’s — That sounds like it has some elements to it for astronauts before they even go in the pool, before they’re ready for that day. They have a lot of work ahead of time to make sure the suit’s going to fit them nice.

Jim Fuderer: They do. And they do a pretty, they do a good job for us. And I can just assume that they probably do a stellar job for them.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: You talk to a lot of the guys working at the NBL who have been there for a long time. They used to do the suit fits where’d they’d actually take the measurements with tape. Now, you come over here on-site. And they strip you down to your skivvies. And they tape a bunch of gray balls on you. And they laser scan your body.

Host: Oh, fancy.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. And it’s kind of. It’s beneficial to not only the suit engineers. It’s practice for them on, on sizing up the suit like that. But then, they’re starting to be able to collect data for future people getting into suits. I mean, we’re going to have a good idea of what the average size is. And what the different sizes of people are. And then, when they come back, and they analyze all that — information, they start piecing together a suit for you. And they give you the opportunity to go in a suit they have on-site, or at the NBL. Excuse me. And they work with you starting with the gloves. You go in there. And put on a pair of gloves. And you can start telling them exactly what you’re looking for, as far as fit. And those gloves are very, very, the ability to adjust them to a very fine thing. It’s pretty good.

Kristie Melass:It takes three hours.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:If that gives you an idea.

Host: Just for the gloves.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. And you do, if you go in there and you know what you’re looking for. And tell the engineer, especially when Mitch was there. You could tell them, and they’ll size those things up exactly what you’re looking for. And then, they put you in a pressurized chamber. They pressure them up. Manipulate some tools in there. And say, yeah, I’m good. I’m happy with those gloves. And then, that’s done. It’s on the. Check that off.

Host: Done three hours later. [Laughter].

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: So, what are you looking for when you’re looking for a good fit? You want it, you want it tight. You want to make sure that the fingers are the precise length. What are the, what are the key elements?

Kristie Melass:Yeah. You’re looking for length. And you’re, you want to make sure that when you’re using them that you don’t have any hot spots on your hands anywhere.

Host: Hot spots.

Kristie Melass:And that it’s not rubbing —

Host: Rubbing.

Kristie Melass:On your knuckles. Because you’re, that’s your most. I think, it’s the most important part of your suit is your glove fit. Because you’re using your hands the most throughout that day. And it’s really, really hard to even grip a tool in those pressurized gloves. Because you’re fighting the pressure of that suit. So, just to grip something takes a lot of strength and effort. And if you have something rubbing on your knuckle the whole six hours while you’re down there, that’s going to be a problem.

Host: Wow.

Kristie Melass:So.

Host: Yeah. That’s a very important thing. And you put them in a glovebox and start working with it. And that’s where you can identify some of those hot spots where you can figure out what’s rubbing. Because you don’t want to have, you don’t want your fingers like all scratched up —

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: — when you’re, by the end of the six hours.

Kristie Melass:And you don’t want your nails being jammed into the ends of the fingers either, because that can cause a lot of damage too.

Host: Now, if you were looking at a suit. I was lucky enough to watch a suit up this morning. And it was. I thought it was. It was kind of interesting. Because they laid down this.

Jim Fuderer: The LTA.

Host: What is it called?

Jim Fuderer: The LTA. The lower torso assembly.

Host: The lower torso. Yeah. And then. And then, I think it was Nick who was the diver. He laid down right on his back. And they were pushing the pants up. And they had to like work the boots. So, it’s like, even the whole thing was just like, it required three people helping him just to put this thing on.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:Yep.

Host: Yeah. That’s tight. There’s a lot of work that goes into that.

Kristie Melass:It’s really heavy too.

Host: It is.

Kristie Melass:So, it’s difficult to get in it.

Host: Oh, OK. And that’s part of the reason why you need so many. Because it’s a heavy piece of equipment.

Kristie Melass:It’s really heavy. And the inner lining sort of bunches up around the ankles and feet. So, it takes a lot of wiggling to get in there.

Jim Fuderer: So, what you saw this morning were the suit engineers helping Nick get into the suit.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: And they’re there to assist him getting into the LTA. And they’re also there to make sure that the LTA doesn’t get damaged in that process. Because again, it’s, it’s pretty robust. But it still has its fragile parts. So, yeah, I need to get you in there. But we got to make sure again, that we don’t damage the suit.

Host: Right. OK.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: So, that’s step number one. You got to. Well, first of all, when you’re coming out, you come out in the liquid ventilation and cooling garment. It’s the, it looks like a —

Jim Fuderer: LCVGA. –(sic) —

Host: LCVGA. — (sic) —

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:[Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment] LCVG.

Host: Yeah. And it comes almost like a jumpsuit. Like a —

Jim Fuderer: Looks like long johns.

Host: — Long johns.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: Like one-piece pajama or whatever. And it has tubes all across. Now, why do you have to wear that?

Kristie Melass:To cool your body while you’re working.

Host: OK, because it could be hot in there?

Kristie Melass:It’s very hot in there when you start working. It’s just an enclosed. You have some airflow in there. Because you’re breathing, gas is flowing through there. But it gets warm when you’re working in there. So, you want this garment to cool you while you’re working. And the water that we flow through there.

Jim Fuderer: Oh, it’s very warm. Well, yeah — its, OK So, the water, the pool itself is extremely warm. So, again, you’re working in the suit. Your umbilical’s traveling across all that warm water as it comes out to you. It gets, it gets warm inside the suit really quick.

Kristie Melass:It does. But that cooling water that goes through the umbilical and through your LCVG that you’re wearing is coming out of the chiller at about 37 degrees. So, by the time it gets to your body, it’s probably in the 50’s. So, it feels really good.

Jim Fuderer: Really good, yeah.

Kristie Melass:And the environmental and control systems operator, who’s sitting up in the, our little mini mission control room.

Jim Fuderer: And Kristie does that too.

Kristie Melass:I do that.

Host: Oh, you’re an environmental person too.

Kristie Melass:Yes.

Host: Alright.

Kristie Melass:The person up there can control your waterflow. So, if the subject says ECS, this is EV1, you know, I’m getting a little warm. Can we bump up my cooling by 20 GPH? Then, we have that ability to bring his cooling up or down. So.

Host: So, they come out with the, with the tubey pajamas. But then, it’s actually the water that’s coming into the suit to flow around. That’s coming through the umbilical.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: OK. So, you got to hook it up to the suit.

Kristie Melass:Yes.

Host: OK. Now, and it comes out at 50 degrees. That’s kind of nice.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: Yeah. And I guess that, because that’s necessary for six hours. You would definitely overheat.

Kristie Melass:Oh yeah.

Host: Being in a hot suit for six hours.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: What else is in that umbilical? You got water flowing through.

Kristie Melass:You have your — so, yes, you have your water. And then, you have your communication line for your comms. And —

Host: To ask for cooler water. [Laughter].

Kristie Melass:Exactly. And then, you have your video cable that runs through there for the little helmet cam that they wear. And you have your gas flow going through there. You also have some transducer wires that are going through there for —

Jim Fuderer: Monitors depth.

Kristie Melass:Yep.

Host: Oh, OK.

Kristie Melass:All that.

Host: Are they breathing the same thing that the divers are breathing, the —

Jim Fuderer: Nitrox.

Host: The nitrox. They’re breathing the same thing. OK. Alright. So, now, we’re. Yeah. We’re going underwater. Oh, I forgot to. We only got to the pants when we were talking about the suit.

Jim Fuderer: I dive only in pants. [Laughter]. Put a bucket on my head and I’m good to go.

Host: Look at that. Yeah, that’s how you know you’re a pro. No, you put on the pants. And you’re doing that sort of next to this, this crane. And on the crane is mounted the upper torso of the suit.

Jim Fuderer: The hut.

Host: The hut.

Jim Fuderer: Yes.

Host: OK. So, how do you? Now, I’ve seen, I’ve seen divers and astronauts try to wiggle into that hut. There’s a technique that looks like —

Jim Fuderer: There is a technique.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: And it’s, it’s different for everybody. You see the same faces go in. And different faces when they come out on the other side. But it’s a tight fit when you get in there.

Kristie Melass:Get a couple bruises usually doing it.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. [Laughter].

Host: Do you really?

Jim Fuderer: Yeah, because it’s. You saw this morning. You come in from underneath. And you, yeah, whatever your dominant arm is, it seems the side that you’re going to feed up. And you try to get up through your arms and pass it through the opening for the hand is. And then, you kind of flex your elbow and your shoulder. And you allow your other part of your arm to squeeze in it. And at this part, you’re almost too blocked. Until you just kind of wiggle your way up and get your hands up. And then, you can make the commitment to standup.

Host: Wow.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. It’s, it’s interesting. Yeah.

Host: And you need, you need those suit technicians nearby to help. This is where there’s — they’re plugging in the LCVG. This is where they’re buckling you. They’re connecting all of the bearings. And they, they basically make sure you’re ready and sealed tight. So, when they actually drop you in, you’re ready to go.

Kristie Melass:Yep.

Host: Now, what happens when you get to that point. You have your helmet on. They’re checking out everything. And you’re ready to go. So, what happens when you’re in the suit. And they say, OK, time to put you in the pool?

Jim Fuderer: Hurry up, take the picture, so I can get in the water and get to work. [Laughter].

Host: Yeah. That’s my job as the PAO. I’m the one that bugs you right before you go in and say, “hey, selfie.”

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. It’s. They go through a series of, you know, comms. Make sure that the suits working well. They pressurize the suit to four PSI inside the suit before they actually put you in the water. And once they have an OK. And everything looks like it’s holding, we don’t have any leaks. That’s why the suit engineer’s there to monitor that. We go ahead and pick them up and we make the commitment to put them in the water.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:The safety divers are waiting right there in the water when the crane goes in. And once we make sure that comms are OK. And the suit engineer gives the OK. Then, we pull them off the donning stand. And we do their initial weigh out. So, that just means that we make sure that they’re going to be easily controlled by one person. So, we don’t want them so heavy that they start plummeting to the pool floor. And we don’t want them so light that you can’t drag them down. So, we do their initial weigh out. We just get them pretty much neutral to where they’re easily manipulated.

Jim Fuderer: And it’s, that’s, captured with some of the senior guys who have come in over and over again. You have a pretty good idea. It was interesting when we had the new class. You’d put them in. And you were starting from scratch. And again, they’re still learning how to manipulate their suit and the tools. And the weigh outs were changing, morphing a lot. It was, it was interesting taking part in that process right there.

Kristie Melass:And we keep a record of everyone’s weigh outs. So, when they get in for the first time and they’ve never been in, obviously we don’t have a weigh out record for them on how much weight goes where. And depending on their body size, it’s either going to be weights or foam up top on their upper torso. If they’re a really muscular subject, then they’re going to need some foam in their upper torso to keep them balanced right. If they’re a tinier girl, then they’re going to need a lot of weight in their chest or their back to keep them balanced out right. So, we keep a record of all that. So, the last time that they get in the suit, we update if there are any changes. We update that in the computer. And we use that for the next time that they get in. So, that’s what we mean when we say weigh out.

Host: So, when they’re about to do a run, they have. I guess, if you’re looking at the suit, they got all these like pockets, I guess, all these little pouches around the suit where you can put weights and floats as necessary, whatever they have, whatever you’ve identified as part of this weigh out.

Kristie Melass:Right. They have a pack in their chest. A pack in their upper back. One in their lower back. And one on each foot.

Host: One each foot. OK. Yeah. Because the idea is. And this is where this term comes from. Neutral buoyancy.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: Is to make it as space-like as possible. You don’t want them sinking. You don’t want them turning in the middle of a, in the middle of a run.

Kristie Melass:Right.

Host: That’s the idea.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. And because that suit is pressurized, it floats. [Laughter].

Host: OK. Yeah. That makes sense.

Kristie Melass:So, you have to have a little bit of weight somewhere just to bring them down in the water.

Host: Now, this morning I –they. There was some. And you’ll have to forgive me. Because I recognized Nick. But there was a new diver on the other side. And so, when they, they took this crane. And they put the tubed, suited divers up. And then, they drop them slowly into the pool. The other diver came back up. And I guess they did this pop test or something.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: What was that all about?

Kristie Melass:That’s a glove pop.

Host: Glove pop.

Kristie Melass:Yep. And we do that with every subject when they first go into the pool for the first time. So that, they know what that feels like. And what to do should they experience a rapid depress of the suit. Because it can happen. You could have a rapid depressurization because you get a bearing blowout, or something happens. So, they get to experience the effects of that. And when that happens, all the air escapes. And it collapses around you. Feels like a big hug. And then, you know what that feels like. And you’re supposed to keep your airway open because it’s going to be a change in pressure. So.

Host: It’s a way to identify if this were to occur, this is what it feels like. And then, this is the technique you use to, you know —

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: Minimize risk to yourself.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: OK. Yeah. And he did that. And I guess, I guess he did fine.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: And some of the safety divers were around to check that. And there was a physician that was around too to make sure that he was OK.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: Now, what else goes into the training here? Because I know you have some chambers. Speaking about the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, there’s some chambers off to the side. They’re, like you mentioned, Kristie, the pool is 20 feet above the ground, 20 feet below. But if you go to that, you know, not. The deck is at the very top. If you go 20 feet below, there’s these two chambers. A hyperbaric and a hypobaric. And what are those about?

Jim Fuderer: The decompression chamber is for treating any diving illnesses that we may incur in the pool. One the reasons why we breathe nitrox is to almost, I don’t want to go as far as guarantee that it doesn’t happen. Because diving is not an exact science. You never know when all the planets might align for you on that particular day that you might actually catch a sickness. And that’s what it is.

Host: OK.

Jim Fuderer: But, it’s there to treat anybody, either the divers or test subject, just in case they start to show any symptoms of decompression sickness.

Host: OK.

Jim Fuderer: And the other ones the altitude chamber. And I’ve been dying to get in there. But I can’t find anybody to pay for me to get a run. [Laughter].

Kristie Melass:Same.

Jim Fuderer: Just to try it out. Yeah.

Host: And what is that? What is the altitude chamber?

Jim Fuderer: It’s a — the exact opposite of pressing you underwater. Here, I’m taking you to higher altitudes and a lack of oxygen. So, seeing I guess the effects of lack of O2 on the brain right before you pass out.

Kristie Melass:A lot of pilots.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah, pilots.

Kristie Melass:Train in the hypobaric chamber.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:So that, they can feel that those effects. And it sort of has almost a narcotic effect to where they can’t do basic motor skills, like sign their name. So, they want to recognize those symptoms should they experience them while they’re flying.

Host: Is it called hypoxia? Do I have that right?

Jim Fuderer: Yes.

Host: Yeah. Where you have that deprivation. And the idea is to identify your systems, or symptoms. So, if it does happen, you kind of know, oh, this is happening now. I better save myself somehow. OK. OK. Now, there’s a lot to this. And speaking of going around the facility. Jim, you mentioned a couple other places. One of them was the tool lab.

Jim Fuderer: The LMF.

Host: Yeah. And are you, as divers are you working on some of the tools?

Kristie Melass:Sometimes.

Host: OK.

Jim Fuderer: So, yeah. Yeah. So.

Kristie Melass:Not the tools that the astronauts use in the water. But we work on a lot of the mockups that are in the water.

Host: Oh.

Kristie Melass:We have maintenance period that happens twice a year. Every six months, we pull out some of the big mockups with the big Demag cranes. You probably saw them. There’s two of them.

Jim Fuderer: The overhead cranes.

Kristie Melass:On the ceiling.

Host: Like the 20-ton cranes or something.

Jim Fuderer: Yes.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. We use those to pull out the big mockups.

Host: OK.

Kristie Melass:And for a week or two weeks or however long maintenance period is that time, we’ll just work on them. We’ll make them pretty again. Replace all the rusted-out parts. Or the labels. Or replace the foam that is missing in them. Or if they have any cracks or need any repairs.

Jim Fuderer: The NBL is an extremely unique facility. And I mean that sincerely. I’m happy every single day I come to work. So, happy that I drive from Katy to come to work here at the NBL.

Host: That’s a far commute.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. So, I’m — anybody listening, you know I’m sincere about what I’m saying. And where I’m going with that is, again, we’re talking about us, the divers who dive specifically with the test subjects. But just about everybody in that building has a diving role. You have your full-time divers. And then, you have divers that have other tasks that fill in for second team and anybody else. And over, again, like in the LMF, the fabricating part of it. We have guys over there that work on the mockups and do over there. And then, they come over and they do the work in the pool, the maintenance stuff. Specifically, why the gear is still in the pool.

Host: So, you love it because it sounds like it’s different all the time. It’s — you’re changing all the time.

Jim Fuderer: It’s different all the time. The people there are extremely cool. Very professional. And we’re very diversified with the different diving experience that we have there at the facility. It’s a very, very unique, very cool place to work.

Host: So, is just doing these runs often enough to keep up a certification and training? Or is there training and swimming tests? Or any kind of like.

Jim Fuderer: Well, yeah.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. It’s —

Host: That’s part of it?

Kristie Melass:We have to keep up our quals. Usually are once a year are most of the qualification tests that you have to do. We have to do a swim test once a year. A surface swim test. We have to do our dive skills once a year to keep up our certifications. We have numerous —

Jim Fuderer: The initial swim test is a badge of honor.

Kristie Melass:Oh, yeah.

Jim Fuderer: To become a safety diver.

Host: Oh, it’s a hard. I’m guessing, yeah, it’s pretty hard.

Jim Fuderer: Oh, yes. It’s a, it’s a — you earn your badge with that test.

Kristie Melass:You do.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. You do.

Host: What are we talking about here? Is it like 100 laps or something?

Kristie Melass:Well, just the interview swim test. So, there were several parts to the interview process that we had to go through. But the swimming part of the interview was, I think, eight laps.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah, it was eight laps in 12 minutes or less. And a lap is width wide. So, there and back is one lap. So, you have eight, eight of those laps to do in 12 minutes.

Kristie Melass:In 12 minutes.

Jim Fuderer: Twelve minutes or less.

Host: I think it’s 101 feet wide. Am I right in saying that?

Kristie Melass:A hundred and two, 102 feet wide.

Host: A hundred and two feet wide. So, you’re talking 204 feet is a lap.

Jim Fuderer: About that. Yeah. I know the total volume of the pool if I got this correct is the size of two football fields.

Host: Oh, OK.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. So, it’s, it’s pretty, it’s big.

Host: Wow.

Jim Fuderer: So, that’s just the surface swim. And then, right there you get a little break. And then, you tread water.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. We had to do two minutes of a tread with our shoulders up out of the water.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:And then, two minutes with our hands out. And then, six minutes just regular tread. So, that was our 10-minute tread segment. And then, after that, you get a little break. And you have to do your underwater breath hold swim.

Jim Fuderer: Fifty-yard swim. Yeah.

Kristie Melass:And then, after that process is over. When you’re being qualified to be a safety diver. To start your safety diver training, you have to pass an underwater swim test with all your scuba gear on. So, you go down about 20 feet. And you swim two laps around the perimeter of the pool in under six and a half minutes.

Jim Fuderer: Six and a half minutes. Yeah.

Kristie Melass:And then, that’s just hard to begin with.

Jim Fuderer: You’re — pumping the entire time. There is no, there is no slacking on that swim.

Host: Wow.

Kristie Melass:And then, they give you a four-minute break. And you’ve got to go down on the bottom of the pool and pick up the hard-upper torso portion of the spacesuit.

Jim Fuderer: The part that you saw hanging on the donner stand this morning.

Host: Oh, OK.

Kristie Melass:That shell. You pick that up. You put it over your head. Or however you want to hold it. And push off the bottom of the floor. And you’re not allowed to have any of your, any air in your BC while you’re doing this. And you have to just hover over the bottom of the pool floor without letting your fins touch. You have to do that for a couple minutes. If you pass that part, then you get a four-minute break. And then, they put a dummy inside that hard-upper torso.

Jim Fuderer: And he weighs about 220 pounds.

Kristie Melass:He weighs a lot. [Laughter]. He’s a big boy. You throw him over your shoulder. And then, you have to rescue him. And swim him from the bottom of the pool up to the surface.

Jim Fuderer: With no air in your BC.

Kristie Melass:With no air in your BC. And it is a challenge. I think I did that test 10 or 12 times before I passed. You have to pass all of them.

Jim Fuderer: Consecutively.

Kristie Melass:Consecutively. And if you fail one portion of it, you have to start over from the beginning the next time.

Host: Wow. That is rigorous.

Kristie Melass:Very rigorous.

Host: But what comes out are the best divers you can probably get for.

Jim Fuderer: It’s a way of weeding out.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: And again, it’s all about the safety of the test subjects. You need to. I need to know that I have somebody who’s a strong swimmer that’s going to be able to respond when I need them to respond.

Host: Wow.

Jim Fuderer: You know. And you bring people in. And it’s, again, they give you time. If you can’t pass that test, next.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: We’ll get somebody else in to do it.

Host: And you said, you have to, you have to have annual cert. You don’t have to do that whole thing over again.

Kristie Melass:Oh, no. That is a one and done thing. Unless you leave and come back. If you leave and have to go somewhere for a year. And then come back to work, you have to do it again.

Host: Make sure you’re still fit.

Kristie Melass:Correct.

Host: OK.

Jim Fuderer: I was 52 when I took that test. [Laughter].

Kristie Melass:I was 39.

Host: I don’t think I could do the first part. I don’t think I could do the 12 laps in eight minutes. I think I’d I would fail like right off the bat.

Kristie Melass:I had a hard time with that. Because I’m — I didn’t come into this as a swimmer. You know, I’ve always been a diver. I have never been a swimmer.

Host: Wow.

Kristie Melass:And so, I had to really practice swimming.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Me too.

Kristie Melass:In order to get —

Jim Fuderer: I learned the technique. I was one of those, I could swim. But I learned the, how important it is not to be looking at the wall.

Kristie Melass:Look down. [laughter]

Jim Fuderer: But I want to look down or look at my feet.

Kristie Melass:Right.

Jim Fuderer: And swim.

Host: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Jim Fuderer: So, not Michael Phelps. [Laughter].

Host: Just butterfly the whole time. [Laughter]. So, so, that’s an intense certification. Now, I know we talked a lot about when it comes to what you’re doing, a lot of it is the spacewalk training for working on the outside of the International Space Station. I know that’s not all that happens in this facility. There’s a lot of other things. One that comes immediately to mind is, and this is one of the cooler ones that I’ve seen, is Orion Egress Training. So, this is that Orion capsule that’s going to be going to the Moon. You put it in the pool. And I guess —

Jim Fuderer: I’m part of that.

Host: You’re part of that?

Jim Fuderer: I’m leaving for San Diego in a week —

Host: Really?

Jim Fuderer: — to do that, yeah. I do that.

Host: So, what’s — going into this?

Jim Fuderer: Well, it’s a, it’s a — I’ve been there at the facility. It’ll be five years. It’s been an ongoing thing, I believe, probably for about ten years. Starting with a gentleman named Tim Goddard, who was initially brought in with this, ex-Navy diver. Who’s done a lot of engineering. A lot of development on this, working with NASA and the engineers. And now, with the facility, there’s several different boiler plates of the Orion staged around. We have one in San Diego that we’re going to go work with, with the Navy. We have one in our facility that you saw.

Host: Yes.

Jim Fuderer: And we put that in the pool. And we test it. We test it with our personnel that’s part of that group. And then, we bring in the Navy divers or we bring in the PJs, which are the Air Force rescue guys. And we flip it upside down. And we flip it back up. And work with them. And train them how to put the gear on. There’s a stab collar. There’s a porch. There’s a whole lot that goes into that. And it’s all been developed right there in the NBL.

Kristie Melass:And we actually create ocean like conditions in the pool with the wave balls that we’ve got.

Host: Oh, cool.

Kristie Melass:We can make waves that are a couple feet.

Host: Wow.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: Because the idea being if you land in rough waters.

Kristie Melass:In the ocean.

Host: Here’s how you deal with that.

Kristie Melass:Right.

Host: OK.

Jim Fuderer: Not so much with, believe, for that, not so much for the test subject, or the people inside the capsule. But it’s for, more helpful for the guys who are actually going to be doing that work on the outside of the capsule.

Host: OK.

Jim Fuderer: You’d be amazed when you swim up next to a space capsule and you have like a three- or four-foot chop, it totally changes your dynamics of how you’re assembling a lot of the equipment that you have to put on there.

Host: Is that, is that really what you’re doing when you’re training for this, is you’re thinking about all these different scenarios and conditions?

Jim Fuderer: Absolutely.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Failures not an option.

Host: Failures not an option.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Host: Very cool. So, that’s, that’s one type of other thing that can happen in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. What am I missing? What else happens?

Kristie Melass:We also do some sea survival training. So, we’ll have people come in and take classes on how to escape should they have to eject from an airplane, and they land in the ocean in their parachute.

Host: Oh, wow.

Kristie Melass:How do they find their way out of their parachute? How do they disconnect themselves from it? We have a winch drag that will actually drag them across the surface of the water. And they’ll have to release their parachute buckles.

Host: Woah.

Kristie Melass:We’ll lift that student up with the crane that simulates a helicopter. And they’ll get in the basket. And just learn how to be rescued. And how to survive should that happen. And we’ll get the waves going for that also. And we have got a new machine that actually is a big fan that blows high wind.

Jim Fuderer: It works pretty well, actually. [Laughter]. It does.

Kristie Melass:And we can create a little bit of rain and wind for them while they’re doing that also.

Host: Wow.

Kristie Melass:So, it’s pretty cool. We also test ROV’s in the pool.

Host: What’s that? ROV.

Jim Fuderer: Remotely Operated Vehicle. It’s a robot.

Host: Oh.

Jim Fuderer: Oceaneering has one in the building. And they actually just got done doing a test. I hope I’m not giving away anything here. We had a customer come in. But they’re able to have a customer come in and maybe do a test on a job before it goes offshore into an environment. Before I spend a lot of money and I find out in, you know, 1,200 feet of water that it doesn’t work. I can test it in the pool.

Host: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:And they test little video rays in the pool also.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:So.

Host: I’ve seen some students over there too. They do like robotics experiment or something.

Kristie Melass:Oh, the Micro-g NeXT students.

Host: That’s it.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. Different colleges will come, and they’ll have competitions. They’ll make certain tools that, different versions of certain tools that they’ll test out in the pool. And they’ll actually have, by the end of it they’ll have the astronauts use their tool and see how well it works. And they’ll document that. And whoever wins, actually gets to have their tool manufactured to go up and be used in space.

Jim Fuderer: They had one, didn’t they? The — he came in. It was, they had, they came up with the —

Kristie Melass:The zip tie cutter.

Jim Fuderer: Yean, the zip tie cutter for the AMS.

Host: That’s right.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. So, that was. That’s killer.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. That’s awesome. [Laughter].

Host: That’s, that was huge. That was an integral part of fixing the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer was that cutter.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: And you’re getting your future ready. I mean, these kids are our future.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: I mean it’s intense. Yeah.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:Yeah, I got to see that happen. So, that was really cool.

Host: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:To be working as part of that team.

Host: Sounds like you both really like being NBL divers. There’s a lot to it. There’s a lot of diversity. There’s just a lot of cool things that are happening.

Kristie Melass:It’s amazing. I always said that, you know, I wouldn’t be happy unless I were doing a job every day that is bigger than us. You know, you’re contributing to the greater good. And exploration. And it’s just so rewarding to see it actually come into fruition. To see our hard work. Especially, you know, when they do spacewalks. Sometimes we get to watch those spacewalks on the monitors on the pool deck as they’re happening live.

Jim Fuderer: I saw that.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. And so, to see them doing the steps in space that you have helped them do so many times in the pool is just, it’s the best feeling.

Host: I’ve heard sometimes, some of the astronauts when they go out on a spacewalk for the first time. One of the things they say are, where are my divers?

Kristie Melass:Yeah. [Laughter]. I’ve heard that too.

Host: Because they’re so used to you guys, right? They’re so used to working with you. Because you’ve been there training them on all of these skills that they’re just about to do for the first time in space.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: Yeah. That’s a big deal. You have a lot to contribute to, to human spaceflight. I appreciate talking to both of you today. This was a fascinating discussion.

Jim Fuderer: But we got more to talk about. You’re not kicking us out yet because we’ve just been dealing with talking about space station. We’re getting ready to make the next, we’re getting ready for Artemis.

Host: Why was I about to wrap up? Tell me about that. Tell me about Artemis.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. So, let’s. So, we, we have the ability now and we’ve brought in. There’s a group of us who have brought in surface supply commercial diving gear. And we’re going to start training for walking on the Moon at the bottom of the pool.

Host: No way.

Jim Fuderer: Oh, yeah. It’s there.

Kristie Melass:We have a little lunar area down there with a sand pit.

Host: Lunar area. That’s cool.

Kristie Melass:Sand pit and some rocks. And we’ve got all kinds of stuff gearing up for that. So, it’s a really exciting time to be in this job. Because —

Jim Fuderer: It is.

Host: You can do moonwalk training in the pool? And what are you training for? What is it they are exactly doing for moonwalking? Just learning how to walk. Are they picking up rocks?

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. Because. And again, it’s different. It’s, it’s we don’t have the suit yet. They’re working on it. So, we are in the process of developing what we think is going to be close enough to simulate a suit that they’re going to be walking on the Moon with. It’s out there. We just don’t have it yet. So, we brought in some, some commercial diving helmets. And we’ve developed a package with that. And it’s a little different. It’s different than swimming. Diving is not just midwater stuff. Now, you put people on the bottom of the pool. And you start walking around and that just opens up a whole different skillset. The different skillset is finding leverage on how to do tools and how to manipulate yourself. And how to walk around and get around. It’s, it’s —

Kristie Melass:Yeah. The gravity on the Moon is different.

Host: Yeah.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:So, we go from weightless training to 1/6th gravity training.

Host: Ooh yeah. That’s a different technique.

Kristie Melass:So, it’s a shift.

Host: Now, you have to work from pushing up that tool. Now, it’s. Yeah. How do you? That’s got to be difficult figuring that out how to do it. But that’s a good place to train, right, to get those skills.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:Absolutely.

Jim Fuderer: Absolutely.

Host: Yeah. I know there’s a — you know, thinking about other things that are happening there. I know suit testing is one of those things. We just unveiled like the new Artemis spacesuit, the one that’s going to be used on the Moon. And I know they tested it in the pool.

Jim Fuderer: The xEMU, yeah.

Kristie Melass:The Z-2.5.

Host: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And just testing out the new suit’s capabilities. And how it, how we’re like actually getting it to a point where you’re close to this is how it would feel in space. I heard great things from, I think it was Kate Rubins, who said really good things about it.

Kristie Melass:Yep.

Host: I don’t know if you were there for those ones.

Kristie Melass:Yeah. I was there.

Host: Oh, you were there.

Kristie Melass:Yeah.

Host: Yeah. That’s got to be cool. Testing the next generation of suits. And see a series of moonwalk, moonwalks. You’re doing moonwalks in the pool.

Jim Fuderer: Well, we’re going to try help also supplement with, with [NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation] NEEMO. So.

Host: OK. That’s, that’s —

Jim Fuderer: With our training. That’s the underwater facility where they go, and they simulate. Well, they go into a shallow sat. And they simulate working in a restricted environment like that. Yeah.

Host: Yeah. It’s like a habitat off the coast of Florida at the bottom of the sea.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. It’s a 60-foot habitat. And it’s an air sat. Yeah.

Host: Yeah. Alright. Am I missing anything? I feel like I’ve skipped. You’re like, no, don’t wrap up yet. You got to talk about, you got to talk about moonwalking. How did I miss that one? [Laughter]. That’s pretty cool. Well, yeah, no, this was really, a really fun conversation. Thank you for coming and talking about the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

Kristie Melass:Thank you so much for having us.

Jim Fuderer: Yeah. This was cool.

Host: Yeah.

Kristie Melass:Thanks.

Jim Fuderer: Thanks.

[ Music]

Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Really good conversation we had with Jim Fuderer and Kristie Melass today about life as an NBL diver. I really hope you enjoyed. We have a lot more episodes of Houston We Have a Podcast. You can check them out at You don’t have to listen to them really in any order. Just pick your favorite one. And start listening away. We also have a lot more shows at NASA. Go to that same link, to check some of those out. We have Curious Universe, Gravity Assist, Rocket Ranch. And, of course, many, many others. You can follow us on social media. We usually post on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you’d like to talk to us at Houston We Have a Podcast, use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform. Submit an idea for the show or a question or a comment. And just make sure to mention it’s for us at Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on February 18th, 2020. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, Kelly Humphries and Jennifer Hernandez. Thanks to Jim Fuderer and Kristie Melass for taking the time to come on the show. Make sure to give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on. And tell us how we did. We’ll be back next week.