How Not To Drown


The most challenging thing I had to do after I became an astronaut was to become SCUBA qualified. 

Why would astronauts need to do that? 

If I was ever tasked with doing a spacewalk (called an EVA, or Extravehicular Activity), I’d have to train for it in the huge water tank at the Johnson Space Center.  The spacesuits used were specially made for practicing tasks in the water and were extremely heavy – too heavy and bulky to swim to the surface.  If something happened and the helmet flooded, how could the crewmember survive?  Staying calm and knowing what to do could mean life or death.

Water Tank Training

In each water tank exercise, there were safety divers whose task was to quickly swim over and share a SCUBA mouthpiece with the suited crewmember until he or she could be hoisted to the surface.

Early in our training, the new Astronaut Candidates (as we were called) went to the local indoor swimming pool to do SCUBA training.  There were a number of tasks to be accomplished to be qualified: tread water for 20 minutes, swim the length of the pool and back under water, pick up a brick from the bottom of the pool, bring it to the surface, and more!

I was not comfortable swimming. 

As a teenager, a friend held me under water until I thought I would drown and that scared me, but I had to get past that phobia and complete the SCUBA training.  It was obvious to our patient trainer, Bill Moran, that I was having difficulty, but that I was trying hard. 

I was flailing around so much that the lifeguards must have thought I was drowning. I wasn’t progressing and was afraid I would be washed out of the Astronaut Corps before I really became an Astronaut. 

I went home and cried out of frustration.


I decided this was not an impossible task – I could do this!

Astronaut Candidate Rob McNair

I was not the only one in the class who was having trouble.  Ron McNair, an African American physicist from South Carolina was struggling, too.  On one of our breaks, Ron and I commiserated.  He told me something that touched my heart, being from the South.  He told me he had never been able to do much swimming when he was young because most of the pools in his state were segregated.  Our backgrounds were different – but we were both determined to overcome the past.

Instead of our twice weekly training session, I went to the pool daily after work.  Slowly I got a little better each time until I could pass the test. 

Ron, he did, too. 

We both gained confidence from the experience that we could face challenges like that in the future.

Ron with Challenger crew

Unfortunately, even after passing our SCUBA tests, neither of us got to do a spacewalk.  It turned out that I was so small that the suit technicians never could fit me with an EVA suit.  Sadly, although Ron trained to do any unplanned, but necessary spacewalks on his second flight, he perished on that flight, STS-51L, the last flight of Challenger.

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  1. Enjoyed this account. Good for you.

  2. I also enjoyed this! I will be sharing this with my middle school students. There are some good life lessons here.


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