Neutral buoyancy, or ‘weightlessness’, has long been a central part of training astronauts and cosmonauts for their forays into outer space. The most common and cost-effective way to achieve a semblance of weightlessness on earth is through neutrally buoyant diving otherwise known as scuba diving. Through scuba diving, astronauts can become accustomed to the sense of weightlessness, prepare for EVA’s (extravehicular activities, or ‘spacewalks’), and practice procedures for emergency situations in space. Scuba diving is an incredibly important skill for astronauts to master and Over the years, I’ve been advised by many space professionals to obtain scuba diving experience in order to further my astronaut dreams. During this blustery winter, I was fortunate enough (thanks Mom!) to have an opportunity to become Padi open water dive certified!
Last year I got a taste of scuba diving at space camp in Huntsville, Alabama. We suited up, learned the basics, and swam to the bottom of a 40 foot pool. For 30 minutes, my teammates and I swam while hoisting hundred pound balls, doing flips, and configuring pressure rockets. After this short experience with diving, I was hooked. I went home and raved about how incredible it had been. I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to dive again so quickly. My experience at camp sparked my mom’s interest to start scuba diving, and before I knew it, we were studying for our Padi open water scuba diving certifications!
Living in Minnesota, our options for open water dives were pretty slim, as certification requires four open water dives. We were looking at extremely cold, ice diving in murky lakes. We decided that if we were going to do this, we should do it right. And so we headed to the Pacific Ocean off the remote coast of sunny Costa Rica! Not only was the water warm, but there was plenty of flora and fauna! We were lucky to have extremely clear water on our dives. It is an entirely different world underwater. Motion and vision take on new meaning, while sound becomes almost nonexistent. Schools of fish swim by in mesmerizing swarms, predators lurk patiently along the bottom, and gentle giant sea turtles meander through the water. Every turn and crevice holds a new surprise, a new wonder and beauty to behold.
Equally as amazing as the underwater ecosystem, is the feeling of neutral buoyancy. Neutral buoyancy is achieved through careful balancing of the natural tendency to sink or float, weights, and small amounts of air. After having this balance set, it is possible to control your buoyancy through breathing in and out. As you breathe in, your lungs fill with air and you should rise. Expelling this air causes you to sink slightly. The most incredible part of diving, perhaps even the most incredible feeling of my life, is to close your eyes and simply exist. Neither floating nor sinking, your breaths balancing out perfectly. With no sound and the dim blue light of the ocean, you can imagine you are anywhere. You can picture anything. For me, when I closed my eyes and found this perfect moment of neutral buoyancy, I pictured the Earth rotating slowly beneath me, drifting farther and farther away in the weightlessness of space.
Often, people will ask me how close I am to reaching my goal of going to Mars. This is always a difficult question to answer because my goal is so far in the future. With a plan as long-term and difficult as mine, it’s important to focus it into smaller steps. Through becoming scuba certified, I feel as if I have taken one step closer to becoming an astronaut and going to Mars. I may have a long way to go, but experiences such as this let me look back at my path and recognize how far I have truly come.