Coloradan astronaut's earthly practice for spacewalks involves virtual reality simulator, giant pool

HOUSTON - Before Colorado astronaut Steve Swanson puts on a spacesuit again, he spent hours upon hours wearing gloves and a helmet on Earth.

"You're holding on to a handrail and you look down and 250 miles below you is earth," Swanson said, drawing on the experience of his previous spacewalks outside the ISS.

-- After the Oscars Sunday, watch 7NEWS for an exclusive interview with Swanson about life in space and how he prepared to become commander of the ISS.

Connected together by bunches of blue and white wires, the helmet and gloves astronauts wear on Earth are part of a custom virtual reality simulator that NASA uses to prepare astronauts for spacewalks. Swanson has spacewalked during his two previous missions to the International Space Station, but the massive structure was still under construction at the time.

The virtual reality gear enables him to see the exterior of the completed station.

"We've modeled the entire station so that we can have it so if the crew ever goes outside, that they get a feeling for what it looks like before they ever go," said NASA VR lab director James Tinch. "One of the biggest compliments we ever get from the folks who go outside the door is when they go outside on the space station they look at it and they say, 'this looks just like the VR lab.'"

In addition to acclimating astronauts to the appearance of the exterior of the ISS, the VR lab is used to simulate use of the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue system, which NASA refers to with the acronym SAFER. The device is a backpack containing small nitrogen-jet thrusters that an astronaut can use for an emergency push back to the station if they lose their grip.

"It looks like a game, but we're actually training for something very serious," Tinch said.

Other training for extravehicular activity includes hours under water in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. The 40-foot-deep pool allows Swanson and other astronauts to practice maintenance or repairs on a space station exterior while the water simulates weightlessness.

"You're underwater for 6 to 7 hours. It's physically demanding the whole time," said Swanson.

It is tough work, but unbelievably important to be prepared.

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