Two Men in a Tub

Being an astronaut is glamorous, exciting, and dangerous. It can also be tedious and undignified, particularly if you’re preparing to build a space station.

  1. There is something unsettling about an astronaut in his underpants. Here is the American hero, the icon. He inhabits the rarefied realm of popes and kings. You expect to see him in parades and CNN feed. You do not expect to see him in his Thermal Comfort Undergarment.

    The ungarbed astronaut is Chris Hadfield, a 38-year-old former engineer and fighter pilot from Canada. He is standing around in his underwear because he needs help getting dressed. You would, too, were you about to don a 250-pound space suit. The suit will be worn for an underwater training session in NASA’s neutral buoyancy tank, part of the Sonny Carter Training Facility at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (It contains 6.2 million gallons, so “tank” is something of an understatement. The public affairs office waxes biblical: “It took three days and three nights to fill.”)

    The tank, formally known as the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, or NBL, is NASA’s gravitational approximation of outer space. Floating around fully suited in a pool is one of the ways astronauts train for floating around fully suited in space, which they will be doing in unprecedented amounts during the upcoming construction of the International Space Station (ISS). The station is too big to launch fully assembled and in one piece. Instead over 100 pieces will be launched and put together in space, one at a time, like an extremely complicated Erector set. ISS astronauts will spend an estimated 1,100 hours in open space assembling the craft. (N...

Originally published in Discover, August 1998