It’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter

On June 3, 1965, drifting high above the Indian Ocean, Ed White opened the hatch of the Gemini IV capsule and stepped into the void of space, becoming the first American to perform an Extravehicular Activity (EVA). He successfully managed to maneuver outside the spacecraft with the help of a small handheld device that directed jets of oxygen to control his orientation and movement. Yet despite extensive hours of training in zero gravity parabolic flights, vacuum chambers, and on frictionless maneuvering platforms, White returned to the Gemini IV capsule completely exhausted after only 20 minutes outside.

Astronaut Ed White completes the first American spacewalk during Gemini IV. Source: https://www.nasa.gov.

On June 5, 1966, Gene Cernan attempted a similar feat during the Gemini IX mission. The original EVA plan called for Cernan to move to the rear of the spacecraft where he would don the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), a backpack designed to allow him to maneuver freely in space without being tethered to the spacecraft. However, he found that the spacecraft lacked adequate external footings and handholds to provide the resistance necessary to don the AMU. Similar to White’s experience, Cernan found it draining just to maintain a steady orientation, let alone maneuver. Cernan aborted the EVA early, frustrated by his inability to move efficiently in such an unfamiliar environment. Crews on Gemini X and XI also struggled to perform even basic tasks during spacewalks, underscoring the need for a different approach toward training astronauts for EVAs.

Just prior to the Gemini X mission, NASA began looking at using underwater training in neutral buoyancy pools to simulate conditions astronauts would experience in space. Neutral buoyancy is a condition that occurs when the buoyant force on an object in water balances with the weight of the object (the object’s density is exactly equal to the density of water), resulting in a state of equilibrium where the object neither sinks nor rises in the water. Trying out the pool after returning from Gemini IX, Gene Cernan extolled the benefits of neutral buoyancy training (too late to be of benefit to the Gemini X crew) for its similarity to the conditions he experienced during his spacewalk.

In September of 1966, astronaut Buzz Aldrin began training in the neutral buoyancy pool in preparation for his spacewalk on Gemini XII. In contrast to the 30-second intervals of weightlessness experienced during parabolic flights, the neutral buoyancy training yielded a much more realistic estimate of the slow and methodical pace that would be required to maneuver in space. It also revealed a crucial need for foot and handholds to provide astronauts with adequate counterforce for control in weightlessness. Neutral buoyancy training has been a mainstay of EVA training for NASA astronauts ever since.

Buzz Aldrin prepares in a neutral buoyancy pool for his Gemini XII spacewalk. Source: https://www.wikiwand.com

Today NASA astronauts train in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. With a capacity of 6.2 million gallons of water, the facility is capable of holding full scale mockups of all the major components of the International Space Station as well as a variety of spacecraft that astronauts might need to train to maintain or repair. Training in neutral buoyancy conditions provides a high degree of fidelity, but it does have a few limitations. Although the spacesuit is virtually weightless in the water, the astronaut still experiences gravitational forces inside the suit. As a result, the astronaut is always being pulled down in the suit — a sensation not experienced during spacewalks. In addition, the resistance of water against the surface of the spacesuit results in drag forces that aren’t experienced in space. Trying to swim in a vacuum doesn’t work very well!

NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Source: https://www.facebook.com.

Last summer I enrolled in a training course to get my Open Water Scuba Diver Certification. I was confident that it would open some great learning opportunities for me, not to mention that it just sounded like a lot of fun! The course, presented by North American Divers in Orem, Utah, began with one night of classroom instruction with about ten other students. We learned all about diving theory, effects of pressure on gasses, equipment handling, safe diving practices, and how to deal with typical problems that might be encountered in diving. After passing a test on these materials, we had two dive sessions in a local swimming pool where we learned the basics of using our equipment to breathe and move underwater. The majority of the time was devoted to dealing with those problems that we learned about in the classroom: clearing water from a flooded mask, finding and clearing the regulator (the mouthpiece that you breathe from) underwater, what to do if you run out of air, and how to make an emergency ascent.

Once these skills were mastered in the pool, we had two more dive sessions in an “open water” environment. We did our open water dives at the Homestead Crater, a sixty-foot wide by sixty-foot deep hot spring near Midway, Utah. With a year-round water temperature of 90 degrees, this is quite possibly the best place to learn to dive in Utah! After repeating all the tasks we had done in the swimming pool, we used our remaining time and air to get comfortable under water and to explore the crater.

Homestead Crater. Source: https://homesteadresort.com

Since solo scuba diving is discouraged — not to mention not nearly as much fun — I encouraged my 17-year-old daughter to also get her certification. She and I are adventure buddies, and I was thrilled when she agreed to take the plunge. She got her certification about a month after I did and we’ve been chomping at the bit to put these newfound skills to use!

My daughter and I finally got to take our first real open water dive two weeks ago while we were travelling in Florida with our family. We initially planned to dive off the Gulf Coast near St. Petersburg, Florida, but high wave conditions prevented us from going that day. We thought about going to some inland dive sites, but scheduling conflicts interfered with those plans and for a while it seemed that we might not get to dive at all. I’m kind of persistent though, and I was determined to find a place to dive before we left Florida.

I was finally able to schedule a dive trip with Jupiter Dive Center, just north of West Palm Beach. The staff at Jupiter Dive Center was amazing! They really went out of their way to make us comfortable and get us outfitted with just what we needed for equipment. After a short thirty-minute ride aboard the dive boat, Republic IV, we arrived at the reef and got suited up. With one giant stride off the back of the boat, I was bobbing in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean! 

Admittedly, I was a little anxious at first, and I had to relax and slow my breathing before I could try to go under the water. I also struggled for several minutes trying to descend before remembering to let the air out of my buoyancy control device — an inflatable vest that controls a diver’s buoyancy in the water. Thankfully my cool-headed daughter was there to help me out, and after a few minutes we descended sixty feet to the reef below. Schools of brightly colored fish swam all around us as the gentle current carried us along the ocean floor. Other divers in our group pointed out sea turtles hiding in rocky crevices and reef sharks gliding effortlessly through the water.

Diving with my adventure buddy near West Palm Beach, Florida.

As I became more comfortable with my surroundings, I felt my breathing slow and I was reminded of something that I had read recently. In the introduction to his book Think Like a Monk, Jay Shetty relates an experience that he had while living in a Buddhist monastery. On his first day as a monk he observed a ten-year-old boy teaching younger monks their first lessons. He describes the ensuing conversation: 

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“We just taught their first class ever,” he said, then asked, “What did you learn in your first day of school?”

“I started to learn the alphabet and numbers. What did they learn?”

“The first thing we teach them is how to breathe.”

 “Why?” I asked.

“Because the only thing that stays with you from the moment you’re born until the moment you die is your breath. All your friends, your family, the country you live in, all of that can change. The one thing that stays with you is your breath.”

Reflecting on that comment in a place where breath doesn’t come so easily, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for something that I’ve taken for granted my whole life. On a three year journey, millions of miles from all that is even remotely familiar, breath may be my only companion from beginning to end, and I treasure every moment of its company.

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