Gizmodo: NASA Turned Its Giant Swimming Pool Into the Moon for Artemis Astronauts

Apr 18, 2023

A Virginia-based company has transformed the section of a submerged training facility to help Artemis astronauts train for upcoming moonwalks.

Teams at an underwater facility in Houston, Texas, are making preparations to train astronauts who are preparing for future missions to the Moon. This facility is being modified to recreate the harsh lunar environment by submerging future moonwalkers in a pool that’s 40 feet deep.

Astronauts have been training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at NASA’s Sonny Carter Training Facility for more than 30 years, with the buoyancy of 6.2 million gallons of water simulating the weightlessness of zero gravity. As NASA prepares to send astronauts back to the Moon for its Artemis program, the bottom of the massive pool is undergoing a makeover to replicate the conditions on the lunar surface.

“We are in the midst of installing sand that mimics the lunar regolith,” Clay Tomlinson, V2X program manager, told Gizmodo. This will “allow astronauts to traverse through that environment just to have an understanding of how it will feel.”

Moonwalking simulation, and it’s doing so by building a replica lunar environment at the bottom of the tank. Aside from the sandy floors, the bottom of the pool is being equipped with boulders and rocks, both real and manufactured, to recreate the Moon’s rock-littered surface.

Astronauts making their way through the simulated lunar surface will also be trained to work in the dim-lit conditions expected at the Artemis landing sites. V2X is in the process of recreating the lighting conditions found at the Moon’s south pole, where astronauts will land as part of the Artemis 3 mission scheduled for later this decade.

Divers are currently testing the underwater lunar environment in advance of the Artemis training. “The main focus right now is perfecting our technique for making sure that we can weigh out at one-sixth [of the Earth’s] gravity,” Tomlinson said. “As we perfect that and as mission requirements demand, training will become more and more specific and the environment itself will become more high fidelity as needs are identifying.”

During the days of Apollo, astronauts trained at the Water Immersion Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. NASA needed a bigger pool, however, to train astronauts for upcoming missions on board the Space Shuttle and for long duration flights aboard the International Space Station. That’s when NBL came into the picture—a massive diving tank that’s 202 feet long (62 meters), 102 feet wide (31 meters), and 40 feet deep (12 meters).

Until now, astronauts used the facility when training for missions on board the ISS. In addition to using it for spacewalk training, astronauts use the pool for simulated landing and recovery exercises; at the completion of their missions, astronauts make their way back to Earth aboard capsules that splash down in the ocean. Teams also used the facility to practice for the recent Orion spacecraft recovery, which splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after completing the inaugural Artemis mission in December 2022.

Future ISS training is still planned for the shallower end of the pool, while Artemis astronauts will train at the very bottom in their simulated lunar environment. “We’re not just simulating zero-G in the middle of the water column,” Tomlinson said. “We’re utilizing the top of the water column on the surface for landing recovery activities and now we’re also executing at the bottom of the tank for lunar surface activities.”

Most of the training that takes place at the facility is for familiarization purposes, especially for newer astronauts. The pool also hosts targeted training for specific missions, in addition to training emergency responses in the event something goes wrong.

For now, ISS training is the main focus at the NBL. “We still have an astronaut crew aboard the space station 24/7, so they are in [a] real time mission at all times and that has to be the mission focus for now because we play an integral part in their success and their safety,” Tomlinson said. “However, now we do have lots of additional focus on Artemis as well.”

Aside from training astronauts for moonwalking, the underwater facility will also be used to prepare them for the future orbital outpost around the Moon known as the Lunar Gateway. “There are just so many different exciting things in their infancies and beginning to develop, it’s just an extremely exciting time,” Tomlinson said. “I love being a part of history, I love being a part of the excitement.”