When I was two years old, my dad was transferred from a job in Denver, Colorado, to one in Recife, Brazil. I remember nothing at all about living in (or at least in sight of ) the snowy Rockies; my earliest memories are of sun and sand castles and the sigh of the waves. We had no air conditioning in our little house on Boa Viagem beach, but didn’t need it due to the lovely sea breezes that swept through the white iron latticework doors to the front porch and then into the cool tiled living room. Coconut palms swayed in our front yard, and my mom hired local guys to climb up them and harvest the coconuts for us. To this day I don’t really care that much for coconut because nothing I’ve had since can compare to the taste of coconut fresh from the tree and whacked open with a machete. I spent many a day out on the beach across from my house watching the waves wash up on the sand, then hissssss back, leaving dark cool viscous sand perfect for cooling my toes or making dripping turrets for my sandcastle. My love of water started then, but continued throughout my life. I spent my teenaged summers trying to practically live with my friend Elaine, whose family had a lake lot on Ft. Loudon lake in Tennessee. I worked things so I spent many summer weekends water skiing behind their motorboat, or learning how to tack back and forth to get across the lake in their sailboat. We even slept in the bunks in the tiny sailboat cabin some weekends and going to sleep being rocked by the gentle waves of the lake is a fond memory.
Given this history, it won’t surprise folks to know that the “waters” part of Woodlands And Waters is mostly me, so when I was given the chance to try out scuba diving at the US Space and Rocket Center and blog about it, I jumped at the chance. If you’ve ever been to the Space and Rocket Center, you’ve probably peered through the portholes into the Underwater Astronaut Trainer, and if you’re like me were at least a little jealous of those lucky space campers who got to try it out. Well, guess what? You don’t have to be at space camp to experience the tank. They offer a short – 2 to 3 hours total – Scuba Experience that any small group can sign up for. You must be aged 14 or older, those under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian (who doesn’t have to dive – they just have to be there), and your group must have at least 3 divers. You will be asked to sign a liability and medical waiver, and then all you’ll need is a swimsuit and a towel. All other scuba gear is provided. The price includes a day pass to the Space and Rocket Center so you can make a whole day of it if you like.
Daughter and fellow-blogger Katie and I arrived about 15 minutes before our scheduled time and checked in at the administration building. I’d never been in there before! If you park on the Marriott side of the park, near the Space Camp entrance, then walk towards the entrance, look to the left for a set of stairs leading up to a single glass door. That’s the administration building. We had to sign in and wait for our contact Ben to come get us, but soon we were being led up to the tank, passing some of the administrative offices on the way. It was cool to be “behind the scenes!” We passed over the 80% scale mockup of the space shuttle, then in to the area around the top of the tank. Ben pointed out a mockup of what’s going to eventually replace the ubiquitous MMU (space suit) – the SPS or Single Person Spacecraft. He explained that space suits have to be custom-fitted to each astronaut and are thus incredibly expensive. These one-person capsules would work for a variety of astronauts, and as an added bonus, they could sit in them in a T-shirt and shorts instead of having to wear the cumbersome suits. The mock up is at the tank so that they can test out different escape hatch shapes and see which one works best.
Ben introduced us to Jimbo Wood, who was also going to help train us scuba-newbies. Some of you might recognize Jimbo as long time radio personality who is currently the program manager at WRTT – the Rocket 95.1 here in Huntsville, and where he is also one half of the “Jimbo and Casio” morning show. What a multi-talented and busy guy! While Jimbo and Ben got out the gear we’d need, we busied ourselves filling out all the necessary legal waivers and things, then we got a brief intro class. We learned things like why you never hold your breath when you’re underwater. Jimbo gave a great description – if you could blow up a balloon with air at the bottom of the tank, then let it start floating up to the top, it would expand because the pressure on it would get lower as there was less water on top of it. If it expanded too much, it could burst. Now replace the balloon with your lungs – yikes! Always breathe in and out so that the pressure in your lungs has a chance to equalize. We also went over vital hand signals, like “OK,” “not OK,” “watch me,” “stay level with me,” “take me up,” and “I’m out of air.” We also learned the actual American Sign Language sign for “octopus” which isn’t really a scuba sign, but it’s fun to know anyway. The trickiest one for me was the “thumbs up.” In my regular life, that means “ok cool” or somesuch. In scuba it means “take me up!” A double thumbs up means “take me up real quick!” The rest of the afternoon I was signalling “take me up” by accident. Luckily, it’s a common problem, and the instructors know to verify first.
After the table top lecture, we changed into our swimsuits and they gave us a T-shirt to put on (the vests are scratchy) and then it was tank time! The tank itself is a near-replica of the tank that was in use out on Marshall Space Flight Center for actual astronaut training. The tank on Marshall is no longer in use, and Ben says it’s sitting empty and rusting. This one is 24 feet deep and holds something like a gajillion gallons of water — ok so that gallons number I made up. I can never remember big numbers – it’s like my brain says “oh ok – lots – gotcha” and then promptly deletes the actual number. The 24 is legit though. First up, we had to walk down steps into the tank and swim across to a platform on the other side. The water in the tank was 92 degrees. It was like bathwater, but chlorinated. At the platform we were helped in to our BCDs ( the technical term for the scratchy scuba vest), then we went over the parts of the vest – the respirator of course, and the air pressure gauge, and the deflator thingy. That last one is my term – I don’t remember what it was called, but it was a valve that controlled an air bladder in the vest so that you could achieve neutral buoyancy. We didn’t use that in the tank, but they wanted us to know what everything on the vest was anyway. Next we got our tanks put on, and learned how to breathe with the respirator – particularly how to clear water out of it if necessary. Then they had us try to get down on our knees on the platform so they could judge how much weight they needed to put in our vests to help keep us from floating away. We learned about our masks and how to clean them so they wouldn’t fog up, then split into two groups for going over some more complicated things. We practiced taking our respirator out and putting it back in underwater, especially working on clearing it. We practiced finding our respirator if it came out and floated behind us. And finally we practiced my least favorite thing – clearing your mask if water got in it. I never did manage to do that without getting water up my nose! But I did get better at it every time I tried so there’s that. Finally, we were ready to descend down to the bottom of the tank to play.
Ben was our group leader and he told us that we would be going up and down using the ladder on the side of the pool. We were to stay even with him, and we’d be stopping every couple of rungs to equalize the pressure in our ears. I was really surprised that as we started going down, sure enough, two rungs in I could feel the pressure in my ears already. We weren’t any further down than you’d be in a pool at that point, so I’m not sure why I felt it then, but I did. Maybe I was just paying more attention? At any rate, we were quickly down to the bottom of the pool, and then it was play time. They have structures down there to swim through and “climb” on. There are bowling balls that you can use as basketballs. There is a giant 100 pound ball that you can practice throwing around. There are little rockets, a plastic shark, golf balls, and a set of water-pressure driven rockets that you can shoot to the surface. We all swam around and played with stuff, threw stuff at each other, and floated up to peek out the portholes hoping we could wave at folks outside. Ben had told us that kids just LOVE interacting with people in the tank. Rock, paper, scissors is a favorite, as is the exploding fist bump – particularly if you push yourself away flailing from the “explosion.” I didn’t happen to catch any kids looking in, though – I only saw adults, but Katie did get to interact with some kids and it made her day.
It was all fun until I made the mistake of discovering the tinker toys. They have a set of smallish wiffle balls with bolts attached, and a set of three foot long pipes. Ben saw me looking at them and came over and gave me a bunch of complicated signs. As best as I could figure out, I was supposed to put something together. I had no idea what. The others all came over and we proceeded to build one three legged, er, structure, but we didn’t have enough to make more. Some folks weren’t that interested and drifted away, but Katie and I kept at it. Eventually we figured out that we were supposed to be putting together a single structure – not one for each of us or something – and got all of the pieces attached. Victory! I was kidding about it being a mistake – I’m only sensitive about it because Ben told us later we were some of the slowest people to solve it. Humph.
Too soon, it was time to head back up. Ben gave us the “thumbs up” sign and waved us over to the ladder. He signed “stay even with me” and we slowly but steadily floated/climbed back up to the platform. At the top, we were all smiles – everybody had a great time! We talked about dive courses in the area and what the requirements are to get open water scuba certified. This short course doesn’t really count towards any of that, but it’s a great way to get introduced to scuba diving to see if it’s something you’d want to learn.
I had no idea this was something you could do at the Space and Rocket Center and from talking to people in the last few days, I don’t think it’s a very widely advertised program. It should be, though! It was a blast (rocket pun not intended). Space is often called the final frontier, but there are those that argue that the deep ocean is the real final frontier. I’m not going to get in the middle of that argument, but here in Huntsville, you can explore both at the same place!