When the space shuttle program wound down, NASA was faced with numerous questions, a key one being, “What do we do with the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL)?”

Good question. The huge pool has been used to train astronauts for weightless extravehicular activities (EVAs), providing sunken mockups of the shuttle and space station exteriors to prepare them for their missions. The NBL will continue to be used for these purposes, but less often.

“With the end of the shuttle program, there will be fewer EVAs,” said Robert Durkin, chief of the NBL. “So to maintain this facility, we’re looking toward external customers to offset the cost. It’s the next chapter.”

Enter Petrofac Training Services, one of the industry’s leading training companies. Petrofac contacted Raytheon Technical Services Co., which has managed the NBL since 2003, to form a partnership to deliver water survival training to the oil and gas industry. The program began this month and provides trainees with a realistic environment for learning critical aspects of water survival.

The partnership will initially focus on delivering helicopter underwater egress training, basic offshore safety induction and emergency training, and further offshore emergency training. The partnership will expand into emergency response and crisis management training using the NBL’s onsite test control rooms.

For Petrofac personnel, the NBL is like a dream come true. “It’s much bigger than standard facilities,” said Paul Groves, managing director of Petrofac Training Services. “That makes it more realistic. Anyone can set up a center with a small pool, but when you compare it to the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea, it’s not very realistic.

“The pool at the NBL is 40 ft [12.2 m] deep, and just the scale of it gives people more of a real-life experience.”

Oilfield workers practice helicopter evacuation at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) during a Petrofac training course. The NBL is being offered to companies like Petrofac to help maintain the facility. (Image courtesy of NASA).


With activity ramping up in the Gulf of Mexico, the timing couldn’t be better. Groves said that there is one training center in Houston and a couple in Louisiana, and these all have two-month waiting lists. Additionally, the size of the center presents the opportunity to train for other parts of the world.

“I would like to see the center being not just a center of excellence for the Gulf of Mexico but a world center of excellence,” Groves said. “Increasingly, workforces are globally mobile, and training someone specifically for the Gulf isn’t sufficient anymore. You have to train them to work anywhere in the world.”

Though demand for training is high, NASA will still have use of the pool as well. Groves said the plan is to move the space station mockup by about 6.0 m (20 ft), freeing up plenty of space for Petrofac’s activities while still providing room for EVA training. That will enable Petrofac to do additional offshore training such as handling ROVs and training divers for subsea operations.

“There’s a broad range of things that can be done,” he said. “It’s truly a unique facility.”

Contact the author, Rhonda Duey, at rduey@hartenergy.com