By Elizabeth Howell
A famed NASA facility that trains astronauts has a new pool area designed for future moon missions.
Before walking on the moon, future astronauts may go for a swim.
The famed Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has trained hundreds of spacewalkers since 1992. All International Space Station crews spend many hours by simulated space modules in the large, indoor pool of water. There, they gradually get used to floating, turning screws, mounting hardware and other activities — all within reach of trained safety divers.
But with NASA now aiming to put astronauts on the moon, a part of the underwater facility is rapidly changing.
Nearby the ISS training area is a growing lunar-like world. Simulated sand and boulders (both natural and artificial) ornament the pool floor. Prototype spacesuits and lunar vehicles take dives.
Even the strange sun conditions on the moon are coming into focus, as company V2X experiments with the lighting that NASA astronauts will face at the moon’s south pole in 2025 or so, when Artemis 3 goes on the surface.
As NASA expands its Artemis program at the moon, the agency expects that commercial companies will quickly follow it there. Already an agency-supported program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) has a set of payloads, landers and rovers aiming to touch the surface as soon as this year.
V2X expects the demand to quickly grow, and they want to be ready with their underwater moon world for whoever needs to train for spacewalks in a strictly monitored environment.
Walking underwater, on the moon
Two spacesuited test divers work in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in an underwater, simulated lunar landscape. The lab is already used by NASA for International Space Station missions, and early-stage work is ongoing by V2X to ready part of the pool facility for moonwalks.
The company emphasizes that the work is being done carefully and procedurally to keep all participants safe and aware of the environment, just like other clients in NBL training (as the facility serves both NASA and commercial customers.)
“Everybody has to be laser-focused on safety at all times,” Clay Tomlinson, V2X program manager, told Space.com in an interview.
“It’s a very, very important thing to do not only for our people, but if you think about the astronauts who are training, we supply their breathing gas. We supply their cooling water. We supply all their videos,” he added.
Other moon work is also ongoing at the water surface level of NBL: V2X participated in simulated landing operations of the Artemis 1 mission after years of practice in the pool. That uncrewed 2022 mission not only sent the astronaut-rated Orion spacecraft around the moon for the first time, but had a flawless splashdown in part due to years of training and preparation for recovery operations.
“It could not have gone better,” Tomlinson said of the recovery, which happened after plenty of NBL practice to shelter from outside conditions in pristine, calm waters. As the team gained experience, they moved to the Gulf of Mexico “to simulate some more realistic states” in open water so the team would be ready for an Atlantic Ocean splashdown.
The NBL was not available to astronauts in the 1960s and 1970s when the Apollo program last brought people to the moon, so a lot of new things are being learned to simulate moonwalks. Weights and flotations are used to keep spacesuited divers at one-sixth of the Earth’s gravity, similar to the moon’s conditions.
Lessons learned are drawn from all the literature available, too. For example, NASA has been practicing underwater excursions for years during its NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) missions. Swims and simulated ‘spacewalks’ happen near the submerged Aquarius habitat in coastal Florida. Astronauts and divers alike have partnered there for futuristic asteroid missions by humans, among other things.
The NBL moon training will take advantage of a more controlled environment, however. Engineered sand, lying on the pool floor, is designed to mimic the regolith astronauts will step upon while on the lunar surface. Panels in the bottom of the tank are also being inserted to create inclines and declines, to help astronauts prepare for the sandy and steep slopes moonwalks require.
“It’s really becoming an impressive environment,” Tomlinson said, emphasizing the team will keep adapting and making careful safety adjustments as more experience comes in.
NASA has not put out any call for proposals yet for moonwalking training, but given how quickly commercial space is ramping up, V2X expects private customers will also need underwater simulations.
“We’re in a daring time,” said Tomlinson of the new moon push. The maturing space industry, he added, means customers are acting more like partners and working collectively to reach goals.
“You can feel that throughout the entire center,” added Tomlinson, who has been at NBL for eight years. “There’s excitement around the exploration and new challenges … it’s more [now] than I’ve seen previously.”
V2X has won a seven-year, $440 million U.S. Navy award under its legacy company Vertex to deliver aircraft maintenance services to the Naval Test Wing Pacific VX-30 and VX-31 at two California locations.
Services to be provided under the award include maintenance, logistics and technical support for the weapons development and test squadrons at Point Mugu and China Lake, V2X announced from its McLean, Virginia headquarters on Wednesday.
“V2X is honored to be selected to support the critical test and evaluation activities performed at Naval Test Wing Pacific. Our established history and record of performance providing maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical support for a variety of Naval Aviation platforms demonstrate our commitment to maintaining high levels of mission readiness,” said Chuck Prow, V2X CEO and nine-time Wash100 Award winner
The NTWP’s goal is to support the Department of the Navy by providing safe, effective and efficient ground and flight test, airborne flight test assistance and experimental operations of manned and unmanned aircraft, weapons and weapons systems. This contract will aid the Naval Air Systems Command in its mission to develop, assess and sustain the service branch’s current array of capabilities.
Contracting activities are expected to conclude in March 2030.
Recently, V2X won multiple awards to support various military branches. In February, the enterprise secured a $265 million contract modification within the Army’s Enhanced Army Global Logistic Enterprise program, under which V2X’s provision of logistics support services at Fort Benning in Georgia was extended.
While still operating as Vertex, V2X won a spot on a potential 10-year, $900 million Air Force contract awarded in December 2022. As one of 92 companies on the contract, V2X is currently helping the service branch identify new methods to progress the development of multidomain systems while characterizing novel systems and technologies through research and demonstrations, conducting rapid prototyping and delivering test and capability transition aid.
Shatara Garrett was hired into V2X, the company formed by the merger of Vectrus and Vertex in the summer of 2022, as a supply technician who inventoried material and equipment, from pencils to tires. She was promoted to Logistics Manager, where she managed two programs with over fifty sites.
She says that when she was first hired, she asked for an accommodation. “I asked for time to answer questions and to allow me to stand and move around and not have my back facing the door.” She adds that V2X can help people with seen or unseen disabilities by listening and learning about these different types of disabilities.
She explains, “The feeling of acceptance is most satisfying to me. I struggle with meeting new people in person and positioning myself in a room to feel comfortable. Working with people that ask me how I am doing and if they can help in any way helps me tremendously.”
Garrett came to the company with a bachelor’s degree in business with a supply chain certificate and spent six years in the military as a supply sergeant. “My background helped me acquire the position I have now.” It was the military that helped her in finding a job, writing her resume, and coaching for interviews. She was originally hired into Raytheon and transitioned into Vertex, which then became part of V2X. “I heard about the company through recruiters at a job fair and loved the benefit program and the ability to still work with soldiers.”
Currently, Garrett is Logistics/Fleet Manager and Compliance Officerat V2X, a leading provider of critical mission solutions and support to defense clients globally. The logistics portion of her job she uses V2X’s asset management tool for its programs. For the fleet section of her job, she is the liaison for the 153 outsourced fleet companies and oversees the purchase and maintenance of vehicles. She also does internal audits on programs and subcontractors to make sure they remain in compliance with government regulations.
Her role now is a managerial one but she recalls, “When I was in a technical role for logistics, I studied to get my certifications from the National Property Management Association (NPMA) while taking college courses for my bachelor’s degree.” She says that having both helped her advance in her career at V2X.
Find open positions at McLean, Virginia-based V2X at www. https://gov2x.com/careers/ and connect with V2X on LinkedIn.
The global government services company is eight months into the combination of Vectrus and Vertex and sees opportunities for its new broader capabilities.
Mergers and acquisitions involving government contractors create changes that can be felt and seen by the federal agency customer, beyond the new name and logo.
Roughly two weeks before V2X’s fourth quarter earnings call Thursday, its chief executive spent an entire week with clients across the Indo-Pacific Command’s region of responsibility. Chuck Prow’s primary purpose was to talk about the new company formed in July 2022 out of Vectrus and Vertex.
“Our clients fully understand the breadth and the important addition of all of these capabilities to the portfolio,” Prow told investors on the call. “It helps us both from a contingency requirement perspective, but it also helps us in terms of a breadth and a scale perspective, when our clients are looking to increase their op tempo, if you will, in regions that are as broad and as vast as IndoPACOM.”
That concept of “op tempo” means the rate at which armed forces units participate in military exercises such as contingency operations, exercises and training deployments.
Both a cursory look at IndoPACOM’s map and consideration of current geopolitics should help show why that region is evidently picking up in activity as Prow observed.
IndoPACOM supports the Defense Department’s “Pacific Deterrence Initiative,” which has $11.5 billion in authorized funding this fiscal year to enhance the U.S.’ posture in that region where China is also located. The PDI’s other main goal is to help U.S. allies in that region build up their defenses.
The IndoPACOM region is also where V2X has “strategically invested to boost its core set of capabilities and converged solutions” over the past five years, Prow told analysts. V2X’s services there also involve electronic security systems, sensors, radar upgrades, systems engineering and communication support.
But that is not the only area that V2X is bullish on with respect to its pipeline and positioning now that the two companies have joined forces.
One big aspect of the rationale behind V2X’s creation was to form a larger provider of government services that cut across both digital and physical assets, or what the company calls converged infrastructure. That concept puts technology as a centerpiece of services in support of operations, logistics, aerospace and training programs among others.
Prow put these numbers to what the merger has created in terms of the combined workforce:
“We have an emerging advanced technology business with 1,000-plus engineers, 500 specialty engineers, where we really like the pipeline that’s emerging behind our advanced technology business.”
V2X reported 2022 pro forma revenue of $3.67 billion and profit of $278 million, figures that reflect the combined contributions of Vectrus and Vertex during the full year. Those represent year-over-year pro forma increases of 8.8% on the top line and 7.6% in adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization).
The company’s initial guidance for 2023 has pro forma revenue in the range of $3.8 billion-to-$3.9 billion to indicate approximately 5% growth at the midpoint. That outlook also has pro forma adjusted EBITDA in the range of $290 million-to-$310 million to indicate an approximate 8% increase at the midpoint.
Year-end total backlog was $12.3 billion and the funded portion was $2.6 billion.
Chuck Prow’s biggest recent achievement is bringing two legacy companies, Vectrus and Vertex, together to establish V2X as a leading provider of critical mission solutions and support to defense clients globally. The combination builds on more than 120 combined years of successful mission support and created a market leader in the operational segment of the broader federal services marketplace. Most rewarding, Prow said, has been to see how the 15,000 employees of V2X are innovating and collaborating daily to find new and better ways of serving clients and the missions Vectrus has been entrusted to support.
Why Watch In 2023
Prow is heavily focused on the successful integration of the businesses and taking full advantage of the synergies and strengths of both organizations to expand Vectrus’ position in the marketplace. There will be a strong focus on people and culture, fully leveraging and enhancing diversity and continuing to invent and drive innovation in the Converged Environment. Through its V2X diversity efforts, the company continues to play a significant role in the veteran ecosystem as well as supporting all of its diversity groups at V2X. “Edwards Deming once said, ‘Every system [organization] is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” Prow said. “This quote has always served as a call to action for me to continually innovate, explore new models, and provide greater incentive for our people to seek new or additional ways to add value.”