To many observers the synergy between NASA and the offshore industry via Raytheon and Petrofac—to provide offshore training at NASA’s National Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL)—may seem as an undertaking with minimal overlap, due to the inherited features of each discipline. However, it has been more than 23 years since the following observation was made on the aforementioned disciplines (1): “There are more similarities between subsea oil drilling and aerospace projects than differences.” Because of this, offshore technology has been utilized and applied on NASA's projects, so it should be of no surprise of the offshore industry’s use of NASA’s NBL.
Our staff members at Reaching Ultra (RU) have had the opportunity of experiencing—first hand—the meshing of the two disciplines, by way of a member our staff who attended a subsea meeting held at NBL’s meeting/conference room, and by other members of our staff who re-certified their water survival and Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) at the laboratory. The result: giving RU a thorough experience of the multidimensional facility that caters to the offshore and aerospace industry.
Entering the Facility
One of the first items to notice when awaiting admittance in to the laboratory are the multiple signs posted in the receptionist area which remind you that even though the facility can be accessed by non-government personnel, the building still contains an element of restriction. In spite of such signs, their impact on your experience greatly diminishes once allowed entry in to the laboratory, as it is here where its immensity becomes apparent (the pool itself holds 6.2 million gallons). Once inside you immediately notice the two part—awe striking layout: one side is allotted to NASA specific functions, which houses a replica space station within the pool; while the other end is designated for offshore specific purposes.
Figure 1: (Top) Shows the exterior of Sonny Carter Facility; (Bottom) Illustrates entry point to the laboratory
Figure 2: Totalized view of the laboratory from the pool's rim/edge
Space Station Layout
Viewing the aforementioned space station can be achieved by walking on the rim/edge of the pool, as shown in Figure 2, or via the meeting/conference room that is over the pool’s center via Figure 3. Of the two options, the latter is highly advantageous, as it gives you a panoramic view of a submerged space station, and of the laboratory as a whole. Furthermore, because the meeting/conference room's view runs parallel with the pool, you can walk alongside the submerged replica from above. This room is equally equipped with monitors that are linked to multiple, high resolution, underwater cameras, allowing you to intimately view the work being conducted at the underwater replica (The camera arrangement is highly similar to those used in Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) control rooms, and dive shacks).
When RU's staff member attended the meeting/conference room, an actual astronaut was observed working in conjunction with divers to carry out different tasks, in and around the underwater space station, see Figure 4. Upon RU's staff member noticing this, it is then that the purpose of the replica station, which serves as an underwater simulation and training center for astronauts, became apparent to our staff member in terms of their similarity to subsea simulations.
Figure 3: Replica space station in a wet setting from meeting/conference room
Figure 4: Topside cameras showing astronauts and divers working in pool
From an offshore standpoint, the simulations carried out within the pool carry a similar function to Site Integration Tests (SIT) and water trials, used for subsea equipment, which aims to: simulate the manner by which subsea equipment integrates and interacts with other kits prior to being deployed offshore; ensure all items of interest work optimally by replicating subsea conditions, layouts, and equipment arrangements; and to train all involved parties on what to expect prior to placing said equipment and kits offshore. Again, the two distinctive fields once more managed to show their similarities, as they did 23 years ago.
As previously stated, the laboratory is partitioned in two, and it is at the non-space station side where the HUET and water survival training courses are carried out. These courses are highly important—as they further prepare future and existing offshore personnel on how to respond to anomalous scenarios when being transported to location on a helicopter. More importantly, this training is required in order to work offshore, and must be retaken periodically, to keep it from expiring. Because of this, members of our staff attended the laboratory in order to keep their training up to date, giving them a first-hand experience of the mentally and physically demanding helicopter simulator, which simulates emergency helicopter conditions. This is achieved by having training participants completely submerged/dunked in the pool while buckled in to the helicopter. After this is completed all participants must then exist from the simulator. Overall, our staff had a positive experience, which they credit to the laboratory's safety first approach and "can do" attitude.
Though the members of our staff who re-certified their training did not have sufficient time to tour the facility, our staff member that was there for non-training purposes was able to do so. Because of this, our staff member was able to view a work class ROV which was staged behind the HUET training area. Having a work class ROV at the laboratory truly demonstrated the laboratory's embrace of the offshore industry. At first glance, however—the ROV can be mistaken for a mock up ROV used for SITs (Such mock ups solely contain a syntactic block, an exoskeleton, and dummy ROV arms). But once the ROV was viewed up close, there was no denying that it was indeed a work class ROV ready to be deployed in the pool space above.
What adds another dynamic layer to the laboratory, is the fact that it does not only tailor to work class ROV’s, but it also holds/hosts the forward thinking and innovative Marine Advance Technology Education (MATE) center ROV competition that (2):
Uses…ROVs—to teach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and prepare students for technical careers… [The competition encourages] K-12, community college, and university students from all over the world to design and build ROVs to tackle missions modeled after scenarios from the ocean workplace. The [Mate competition] compliments the education pipeline by providing students with the opportunity to build upon their skills…as they engineer increasingly more complex ROVs for increasingly more complex mission tasks.
At Reaching Ultra we can attest to the impact the MATE competition has had on its active participants, as we have worked with fellow engineers and technicians whose involvement in this competition directly resulted in them pursuing a career in the offshore industry.
Figure 5: Offshore workers being briefed prior to boarding helicopter simulator
Figure 6: Fully outfitted Work Class ROV in staging area next to the offshore portion of facility
The Future and NBL
It is our belief that the NBL is truly a cutting edge facility of the future that defies all technological boundaries, while providing a highly interactive arena where individuals are given the opportunity to experience, and further their passion for the offshore, and aerospace industry. For this reason, we highly recommend that any direct and outlier participants of the aforementioned industries experience the NBL first-hand.