Preparing for a space walk involves a mix of really cool training. The place where most of the training for a space walk is done is called the Neutral Buoyancy Lab or NBL, aka a really big pool with a mockup of the space station and the space shuttle payload bay. The space walkers are suited up in real space suits and work in the pool with real tools on the mockups – really and truly the closest thing you can get to working on the real space hardware on orbit.
Today we were training in the Virtual Reality (VR) lab – one of the other pretty amazing training facilities we have. Virtual reality --- I’ve always found the name amusing. Though when you think about it I guess it makes sense. One of the other funny phrases we say a lot in training is “ok, when you do that in real life….” Like it’s not real life during the training we’re doing or that what we’re doing isn’t “real”… really it’s more that the way we’re doing something in training may be “faked/simulated” from the way we’re actually going to do it on orbit and so we seem to find it necessary to comment on how it will “really” be in space (aka, in “real life”).
The VR lab, however, feels anything but fake. We put on the goggles and the gloves and are then transported to the outside of the space shuttle or space station. We can "move around" the hardware handrail by handrail and really get a spatial feel for what it will be like to be hanging off the space craft as you’re orbiting above the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. You can use the VR training to figure out how you’ll work with your space walking partner, how you will work with different tools, how you will get on and off the end of the robotic arm (and what it will feel like to “fly” across space on the end of the arm), and you can even see what it would be like to use the jet pack on your back to fly back to structure in case you became untethered (but don’t ever do that because that’s on the list of something you never want to really need to do).
The technology applied to the training we do is pretty impressive. There are some really talented people developing all these tools and it’s great to see how much they love what they’re doing. It’s a real pleasure to work with people who can develop such impressive training tools and have fun with it too.