Big Fun in Little Gravity

I was floating outside the cargo bay of the space shuttle when I lost my grip on the wrench I was bringing astronaut Ron Tanner. Slowly it drifted away from me and pinged off the faceplate of Ron’s helmet. Whoops-a-daisy. He gave me a glare which roughly translated as, “Kid, your Stuff ain’t Right.”

Now, you think, surely he’s making this story up. He doesn’t expect me to believe that spacewalks are among his oddball adventures. Ah, but the tale is true. Again, the alert reader may have noticed a telling clue in the first paragraph. Wrenches may strike helmets in the vacuum of space, but, lacking a transmission medium for sound waves, they won’t ping. Water, on the other hand, is an excellent sound conductor, four and a half times faster than air. (The speed of sound in water was first measured in 1826 by Swiss physicist Daniel Colladon and mathematician Charles-Francois Sturm. Colladon rang a bell underwater in Lake Geneva and simultaneously ignited gunpowder. Ten miles away, Sturm saw the flash and measured the time it took for the ring to arrive using a trumpet-like device in the water. They determined the speed of sound in water was 1,435 meters/second, doggone close to today’s accepted value of 1,439 meters/second. I mention this because doesn’t it seem that all the really clever experiments have been done? What passes for ingenuity today are advances like the Slurpee cup with the divider that allows two flavors to coexist in the same cup!)  The incident didn’t occur in orbit. It happened underwater. If you caught this, call NASA and request an application.

Until those lazy scientists get off their duffs and invent the anti-gravity ray gun heralded by comic books for decades, NASA has only two ways of simulating weightlessness on earth. The first is a white-knuckle ride in a modified Boeing KC-135A turbojet. By roaring up from 24,000 feet to 31,000 feet at a forty-five degree angle, then pulling back on thrust and coasting up and over the top of a parabolic arc, the aircraft can produce about twenty-five seconds of zero-gravity for experiments and astronaut training in its padded cargo bay. If you’ve seen Kevin Bacon squirt weightless blobs of juice in his mouth in Apollo 13, you’ve seen the KC-135’s handiwork. The cast and crew flew about five hundred arcs in the plane to achieve the real weightlessness depicted in the movie.

But the KC-135 has limitations: short zero-g durations, cramped test space, and a gut-churning trajectory that produces a one-third barfing rate among first-time fliers of the “Vomit Comet.” It’s not the sort of place astronauts can practice putting a pair of bifocals on the Hubble Space Telescope. For large-scale rehearsals of space operations NASA has only one option: neutral buoyancy. Making things like satellite mock-ups, tools, and space-suited Ron Tanners neutrally buoyant in water—that is, neither rising nor sinking—is a matter of attaching lead weights or foam.

The Neutral Buoyancy Simulator (NBS) at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama is a cylindrical tank seventy-five feet in diameter and four stories tall, containing 1.3 million gallons of water. That’s enough water to, uh… give 1.3 million people a gallon of water. It’s also enough water to submerge a full-size mock-up of the space shuttle cargo bay.

Of course, NASA wouldn’t be NASA without 1.3 million safety checks, one of which is a crew of safety divers at the NBS. And that’s how I found myself irritating astronauts like Ron. MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory sent me and a dozen other students to Marshall for the winter semester break to fiddle with some widgets that might prove useful in building the space station, or in more fundable terms, to conduct “Time and Motion Studies of Large Space Structure Assembly Using Underwater Simulation of Weightlessness.”

When I heard about the program I had to sign up, in keeping with my rule to never turn down anyone willing to pay for my certification in an expensive hobby like SCUBA-diving. Plus the gig seemed positively spa-like compared to the alternative: enduring a scrotum-retractingly cold January in Boston, my teeth chattering like a teletype. The continuously filtered water in the NBS has a gin-like clarity and is as warm as a pile of laundry fresh from the dryer. As added incentive, the three best-looking MIT women were part of this program and the thought of spending eight hours a day in close proximity to their wet-T-shirt-wearing, SAT-acing bodies was a sacrifice I was willing to make for science.

I never understood much of the actual research. The “large space structures” we built were giant tetrahedra composed of PVC pipe. I think it was the connectors between the pipes we were prototyping. Basically, my comprehension of events in the tank was limited to thoughts like, “I wonder if he’s going to connect the astrowhozit to that whizdiggy over there? He is, he is! Oh crap, is that astronaut motioning to me? Does he want this dealiebob I’ve been holding? Okay, hold your Tang! Let me finish scratching my back with it.”

We were supposed to take breaks from diving throughout the day so we wouldn’t develop the bends, but being young and therefore indestructible, I ignored the dive tables. Happily, when we did take breaks, the tank provided ample opportunities for monkeyshines.

One of our pastimes was a variation on that convenience store game where you drop a coin in a water jug and hope it flutters into the shot glass. If it does, you win a prize. If it doesn’t, Jerry’s kids thank you. We stood on the upper deck of the NBS, used the tank as our jug, played it with lug nuts, and instead of a shot glass, aimed for each other’s heads. This activity was banned the day I beaned an astronaut, though I thought a periodic lug nut shower made the simulation more realistic with all the space debris in low earth orbit.

Another diversion of mine was laying on the bottom of the tank, taking a big lungful of air, removing my regulator, and blowing air rings, like a smoker blows smoke rings. The compressed air doubles in volume as it rises and the rings eventually become necklaces of tiny bubbles twenty feet in diameter when they reach the surface. These air-wasting antics kept the SCUBA tank refiller guy at the top of his game.

The NBS features a number of observation portholes into the tank and these provided my greatest source of merriment. The NBS was on NASA’s public tour itinerary and visitors would gawk at us several times a day. As an aquatic attraction, I felt a Shamu-sized desire to perform. Sometimes I would wave at tourists wearing my “Creature from the Black Lagoon” Halloween mask, but generally I would remove my SCUBA gear and float by the porthole—inverted, eyes rolled back in my head, limbs limp, ostensibly drowned. When I heard screams through the inch-thick steel tank wall, I knew I’d given the folks their money’s worth.

If we happened to be exiting the tank when tourists were present, they assumed we were astronauts and invariably asked for our autographs. The NBS director had warned us not to impersonate astronauts, so I was very careful to sign my name Yuri Gagarin. (I’ve never understood the fascination with autographs. Once I was working as an extra on the movie Arlington Road and my job was to cross in front of the star. Between takes an onlooker asked for my autograph, so I wrote, A Person Who Walked By Jeff Bridges Repeatedly.)

At night the bevy of technobabes found a use for me, but not the one I had hoped for. I became their make-up assistant and hair stylist for wild nights on the town with local men. We had worked closely for so long that I achieved dreaded “like a brother” status. My duties also included being a guinea pig for various products the girls bought to save their skin and hair from damage due to daily immersion in the chlorinated water. One girl’s remedy for chemically-fried hair was to slather a thick layer of mayonnaise on my head and bake it in with a hair dryer. Submitting to this was a huge deal for me—I abhor all condiments and consider mayo to be the devil’s jissom. But I was desperate to please and went along. The next day I wondered whether the prankster had become the prankee. My scalp smelled like potato salad for a week.

Between hijinks I managed to absorb a few morsels of wisdom from MIT’s waggish Space Systems Lab director, Dr. Dave Akin. A true space zealot, Dr. Akin has probably logged more hours underwater in his research than the USS Seawolf. His “Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design,” a compendium of engineering humor, has become very popular on the Internet. Some observations include:

In nature, the optimum is almost always in the middle somewhere. Distrust assertions that the optimum is at an extreme point.

Mar’s Law: Everything is linear if plotted log-log with a fat magic marker. (You may have to be an engineer to appreciate that one. If you’re not, trust me, it’s funny.)

The odds are greatly against you being immensely smarter than everyone else in the field. If your analysis says your terminal velocity is twice the speed of light, you may have invented warp drive, but the chances are a lot better that you’ve screwed up.

von Tiesenhausen’s Law of Program Management: To get an accurate estimate of final program requirements, multiply the initial time estimates by pi, and slide the decimal point on the cost estimates one place to the right.

Mo’s Law of Evolutionary Development: You can’t get to the moon by climbing successively taller trees.

Atkin’s Law of Demonstrations: When the hardware is working perfectly, the really important visitors don’t show up.

January drew to an end and it was time to pack up the gear and return to Ice Station Boston. I couldn’t afford to fly so I volunteered to drive the equipment from Alabama to Massachusetts. It was a smooth drive and I even had time to stop in Lynchburg, Virginia to attend a birthday party a friend was having in her family’s Tara-esque antebellum mansion. I didn’t realize it was a costume party until I got there. Luckily, I knew where to find an outfit, proving

Altes’s Law of Improvisation: When you entrust an Apollo spacesuit worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a college student, you can be certain he will find an occasion to wear it. And do the moonwalk.

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About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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