New partnership: NASA Sharing Underwater Training Facility With Petroleum Industry

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Astronauts and oil field workers will share a training facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston thanks to a new agreement that takes advantage of excess capacity at the agency's underwater training pool.

The Sonny Carter Training Facility Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) is the largest indoor pool in the world and has been the extravehicular activity (EVA) training facility for astronauts for many years. With the recent retirement of shuttle, many have wondered what is the next big project for the NBL. It will continue training International Space Station crews there for spacewalks. With the end of the Space Shuttle Program and the completion of space station assembly, the time required for NASA spacewalk training has decreased, and there is a new partnership on the horizon.

NBL History

Since the mid-1960s, neutral buoyancy has been an invaluable tool for testing procedures, developing hardware and training astronauts. This neutrally buoyant condition simulates reduced gravity sufficiently for the astronaut to practice future on-orbit procedures, such as extravehicular activities (EVA) and to work through simulation exercises to solve problems encountered on orbit. Some of these exercises are carried out on a real-time basis.

In 1995 Johnson Space Center named the NBL training facility, near Ellington Field, in honor of the late astronaut M. L. "Sonny" Carter, who was instrumental in developing many of the current spacewalking techniques used by the astronauts.

The future

Raytheon Technical Services Co. of Dulles, Va., NASA's contractor for operations at the NBL near Johnson, has signed an agreement to partner with Petrofac Training Services in Houston.

Petrofac will use the NBL to provide survival training for offshore oil and gas workers. Oil field worker survival training is expected to begin in December.

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The NBL will provide trainees with one of the most realistic environments available to learn critical aspects of water survival. The 202-foot-long, 102-foot-wide pool at the center of the NBL was designed to support spacewalk planning and training using full-scale mockups of the space shuttle and space station. While the 6.2 million-gallon, 40-foot-deep pool will continue to support NASA's activities, a transparent 12-foot faux floor will be installed in designated areas to support survival training.

In 2010, NASA selected the Raytheon team to manage and operate the facility under the NBL/Space Vehicle Mockup Operations Contract. NASA allowed Raytheon to use the facility when it is not being used for agency activities. The partnership will efficiently use NBL resources while combining the expertise and capability of Raytheon and Petrofac to create a center of excellence for survival training. The Raytheon team has managed operations at the facility since 2003. The partnership initially will focus on three core survival courses applicable to the worldwide oil and gas industry.

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The core courses are helicopter underwater egress training; basic offshore safety induction and emergency training; and further offshore emergency training. The partnership also will expand into the delivery of emergency response and crisis management training for oil, gas and other industry sectors by using the NBL's on-site test control rooms. The announcement highlights NASA's efforts to find new and innovative partnerships. By opening Johnson Space Center's facilities and resources for use by non-aerospace industries, NASA hopes to find areas of common interest where both parties can help each other foster new technologies that not only improve life here on Earth, but also pave the way for future human exploration in space. The NBL is just one facility with the potential for use by outside industries with special needs for design, development, testing, operations or training, especially in extreme environments.

Neesha Hosein
Johnson Space Center, Houston

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Updated: 11/28/2011