These Astronauts Designed Experiments for Space by Swimming Underwater

December 18, 1975: This is no casual swim: astronauts Carolyn Griner, Ann Whitaker, and Mary-Helen Johnston train in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator to help design new experiments to conduct in the challenging environment of space.

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1976: Griner, Johnston, and Whitaker [clockwise from front] in scuba gear before descenting into the tank. Image credit: NASA

Unlike many early space agency programs composed of all-women teams, the program had nothing to do with testing the suitability or limitations of women in spaceflight. Instead, it relied entirely on their knowledge and expertise to solve problems, not their biological characteristics as test subjects.

The three women trained at Marshall Space Flight Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Simulator as part of their efforts to design and develop new experiments for astronauts to conduct in microgravity. Each specialized in a different field: Dr. Griner in material science, Dr. Whitaker in lubrication and surface physics, and Dr. Johnson in metallurgical engineering. Their job was to identify what tasks could be completed in microgravity, and which ones required additional foot- or hand-holds or specialized tools. The experiments they designed were flown on Spacelab, a European-built science module for the Space Shuttles.

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1976: Whitaker, Johnston, and Griner [clockwise from front] in scuba gear emerging from the tank. Image credit: NASA

This was far from the first time the three women trained together: the trio were joined by Doris Chandler in 1974 for a series of NASA experiments. Their participation in a five-day simulated Spacelab experiment in 1974 proved the benefit of having a highly-trained crew for everything from identifying minor malfunctions to salvaging experiments. A 1976 report concluded:

“Had it not been for the extremely knowledgeable science crew, two experiments at least would have been lost early in the simulation. [They] were saved both by their knowledge of the hardware and the science that was to be obtained.”

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Although none of the trio ever went to space, they continued to contribute to human space exploration. Ginder helped design the Saturn V, and later became the Deputy Director and later the first woman to serve as Acting Center Director at Marshall Space Flight Center. Whitaker became a pioneer in predicting the behaviour of materials in space, first serving as the chief of the Physical Sciences Branch, the Engineering Physics Division, and the Project and Environmental Engineering Devision before moving on to be the Director of the Science Directorate at Marshall Space Flight Center. Johnston designed and flew Spacelab experiments, directed mission activities from ground control center, and served as an alternate payload specialist.

Top image: Carolyn Griner, Ann Whitaker, and Mary-Helen Johnston [top to bottom] undergo training in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator. Credit: NASA


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

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