Raytheon, NASA open a space simulation facility to commercial customers
As the headquarters for all aspects of human spaceflight -- including spacecraft design and astronaut training -- NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston is home to such technological wonders as a Space Shuttle and the Apollo-era Mission Control room.
Yet even among these marvels, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) is an amazing sight. A super-sized pool used to simulate the microgravity conditions in orbit, the NBL is where astronauts learn to work in space, training on detailed, submerged full-sized mockups of the International Space Station (ISS). Remember the underwater training scenes in the Hollywood blockbuster “Armageddon?” They were shot in the NBL.
NASA recently awarded Raytheon a sole-source services contract to continue maintaining and delivering innovative improvements to the JSC. And now, thanks to Raytheon innovations, the NBL -- once the exclusive domain of NASA astronauts and engineers -- is being opened to external customers.
“With the International Space Station completely built and the Space Shuttle program concluded, there is available space in the NBL,” said Lisa Lundquist, senior engineer at Raytheon. “Although astronauts still train in the NBL weekly, we found we can help keep the large facility running by introducing commercial customers.”
Since 2003, Raytheon engineering and technical services teams have provided operations and maintenance support to the NBL and other NASA facilities, from keeping SCUBA air flowing to building those underwater ISS mockups.
"Our mission is high-consequence," said Randal Lindner, senior manager for Raytheon in Houston. "The fidelity we build into the mockups and the realism in the operational simulations we support ensure that astronauts are ready to respond to any scenarios that pop up in orbit.”
Commercializing NBL facilities and resources is helping NASA realize significant savings on the cost of running the facility, while providing new customers with a better way to prepare their teams for high-consequence scenarios.
Unique Customers, Unique Needs
The same underwater cameras and sensors that monitor NASA astronauts and engineers can be used to capture other training scenarios, or test new hardware and technologies. In addition to the pool, the NBL also houses a light manufacturing and maintenance test support facility outfitted with machine workshops and other advanced capabilities, including 3-D modeling and animation equipment.
“The NBL is an ideal location for anyone that wants to do a wet test,” said Lundquist. “The pool is a 202-foot-long, 102-foot-wide, 40-foot-deep, fully-instrumented laboratory with a suite of on-site support services.”
Oil and gas companies were among the first external customers to use the NBL. Raytheon worked with them to develop specialized courses for oil platform worker training, including firefighting, first aid, lifeboat operation and other emergency procedures. One of the more interactive courses involves instruction on how to escape from a helicopter that has ditched in the ocean. The course, called Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET), is equal parts education and thrill ride.
“HUET has crawl, walk and run levels” explained Lundquist. “We have a mockup of a helicopter that is lowered into the water. In the 'crawl' scenario, the mockup isn't submerged and the trainee exits to the surface. In the 'walk' scenario, the mockup is fully submerged and the trainee escapes out an open window. In the 'run' scenario, the mockup is fully submerged and the trainee escapes by getting out of a harness, knocking out a window and exiting -- all while upside down.”
Conducting tests in the facility also leads to significant financial benefits for commercial customers.
“Problems on an oil rig can cost millions of dollars every day in lost revenue,” said Lundquist. “If there is a problem, come to the NBL and test it. Getting solutions right in the pool can spare a company expensive offshore rework.”
Clients outside the oil & gas industry have used the NBL to test underwater wireless communications equipment and robotic vehicles. One customer performed drop tests to validate simulations that locate items lost at sea on the ocean floor.
“Our customers are impressed with this unique facility, and we want them to come here to take advantage of its capabilities,” said Lundquist. “This is a one-stop-shop for any support needed for a wet test, but also a great facility to bring customers to show off.”
Offering “open swim” is a win-win situation for both NASA and customers of the NBL.
“Every new commercial customer helps NASA maintain sufficient, qualified staffing levels necessary to support successful human spaceflight,” concluded Lindner.