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Mike Gernhardt: A Diver in Space
Date:03/22/03  By Eric Hanauer

Nothing I'd ever seen, heard, or read about a shuttle launch prepared me for the real thing. Everything happens too quickly. Night is instantaneously transformed into day as the booster engines ignite. The incandescent light of the rocket exhaust, so bright its image burns into my retina, is followed by a long plume of dark smoke as the shuttle swiftly soars into infinity. It takes 15 seconds for the sound to reach us at the viewing stand three miles away. When it does, I feel it as much as hear it, rumbling deep within my chest. Two minutes into the flight I can see the fiery trails of the booster engines at cutoff. At eight and a half minutes the spacecraft is in orbit, a brilliant point of light racing through the night sky. all traces back to falling in love with the ocean at a young age.

astronaut over hurricane
NASA photograph
Mike on a space walk over a hurricane in the Caribbean

photo of astronaut Mike Gernhardt in a space helmet
© Eric Hanauer
Mike Gernhardt

photo of astronaut Mike Gernhardt suiting up in a space suit
© Eric Hanauer
Suiting up for a training dive in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, Houston

photo of a space shuttle launch
NASA photograph
Atlantis launch

The public and the media have become blasé about shuttle missions, but at Cape Canaveral every launch is a happening. STS 104 was even more special, because there was one of us on board. Mission specialist Mike Gernhardt is a diver, the most experienced ever to soar into space. A veteran of three previous shuttle missions, Mike once was a commercial diver and a resort instructor, and is a recognized authority on decompression theory, both in space and underwater. He's been diving since the age of eight. It's his passion, his profession, and his non-traditional means of becoming an astronaut.

Mike's inspiration came on early fishing trips to Florida with his dad. "It caught me deep in my soul as a young kid. Diving was always my motivation and almost everything I've done was connected with it." He had read Cousteau in third grade, and made his first dives at Barbuda in the Caribbean. As soon as he turned twelve, Mike got certified and dove everywhere he could in his native Ohio, from stone quarries to Lake Erie.

It was in high school physics class that he became fascinated with the universe. " I put the connection between diving and space together and decided I wanted to be an astronaut. People told me to join the Air Force, but my love was the ocean and I wanted to take that path. I made decisions that wouldn't preclude me from being an astronaut but didn't just go out and get the conventional astronaut resume."

Gernhardt's professional diving resume began at age 17, working the summer as a divemaster at Virgin Islands Diving School. The owner, Marv Ellis, sent him through an NASDS instructor course. After two summers of leading tourists on resort dives, Mike was ready for new challenges. By this time he was majoring in physics at Vanderbilt University and had done an independent study on bubble dynamics, inspired by Dr. Christian Lambertsen's work. Today bubble mechanics is accepted decompression theory, but at the time it was a pioneering concept.

In the summer of 1976, the 20 year old sophomore applied to every commercial diving company in the Gulf of Mexico. Intrigued by his research, Jerry Evans of Santa Fe International offered Mike a job as a tender if he could pass the written test. Despite no commercial training, he aced it. It was the start of a nine year career in the oil fields, summers at first, then full time after graduation. " Initially I was a clear water diver, and not into welding and working in the mud. Then I got intrigued with the challenge and art of getting a construction dive done against limited bottom time and a lot of environmental stresses. As a commercial diver you learn tricks, how to cheat and make the dive as easy as you can. Why bust your butt if you don't have to? It's hard enough anyhow." He would eventually adapt some of these techniques for use in space.

After graduation Mike joined Ocean Systems as an engineer, repairing oil platforms off the coast of Peru. For three years, despite his parents' reservations, he was a full-time diver. "My mom isn't afraid about my going into space, but was scared all the time I did commercial diving."

In 1980, Mike entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, studying under Lambertsen, who was also medical director of Ocean Systems. For the next ten years he worked between the university and the field, developing and implementing a variety of decompression tables for commercial diving.

When Gernhardt discusses decompression theory, he becomes animated, leading the listener into a complex maze of technical theory and application at breakneck speed. At these times the interviewer keeps his mouth shut, hoping Mike doesn't realize how far he's lagging behind. The bottom line is that these tables allowed more bottom time with shorter decompression and more safety. "I learned a lot of stuff...first hand, saw a lot of bends and got a good sense for the different profiles... had the unique opportunity to directly integrate academics and operations... and to work with Dr. Lambertsen. The tables we generated are being used by Oceaneering to this day."

The company was grooming him for an executive position, and agreed to pay him a retainer while in graduate school. Combined with a dean's fellowship, this allowed amenities beyond the reach of a typical graduate student, including a nice apartment overlooking the river, and a Porsche.

Then it was back to work: Mexico, South America, the North Sea and Southeast Asia, mixed gas and saturation diving, going as deep as 640 feet. Oceaneering International bought Ocean Systems in 1983, and assigned Mike to the advanced technical group in Houston, working on robotics and decompression. In conjunction with Lambertsen, who continued to be a mentor, he developed new tables on contract for the British department of health and human services.

But how does a commercial diver become an astronaut? By age 29 Gernhardt was a vice president at Oceaneering, heading up special projects. He had applied to NASA after graduate school but just missed the interview stage. This convinced him he needed a PhD. He also convinced Oceaneering president John Huff to form a space division of the company, aiming for NASA contracts. Mike gathered a team of about 70 engineers. "I was the old man in this group. Most of the kids were 23, 24 and were superstars. My job was to stimulate them with ideas; I gave them the ball." They worked on projects like manipulators, umbilicals, and cryogenic systems. Mike continued his studies of decompression theory, and earned his doctorate in 1991. He applied again for the astronaut corps and this time made the cut. "It was tough to leave the company. I had this vision of commercial space, which is still my long term goal."

At NASA, Mike continued to apply commercial diving techniques to space. One innovation was a body restraint tether for spacewalks, which allowed astronauts to have both hands free. Some senior personnel said it would never work, but Mike showed how they could save 100 hours on assembly sequences. It's now standard issue.

His current project involves leading a multi-center team of decompression experts to develop improved decompression methods for spacewalks. Using a combination of heavy and mild exercise combined with oxygen prebreathing, his technique improves safety and cuts in half the time required for decompression prior to EVA's (extra-vehicular activities).

Mike had done two spacewalks on his previous shuttle missions, and made three more on STS 104. His task was to attach the airlock module to the International Space Station. On the final walk, he and James Reilly became the first astronauts to do EVAs from the airlock.

What's it like to walk in space? "There's this tremendous sense of speed as you race by the earth at 18 thousand miles an hour. We're up 250 to 300 miles, and the relative motion is about the same as if you were doing a wing walk on a supersonic jet. Looking down at the Sea of Cortez, I punch some numbers into an electronic checklist. (When) I look down again I'm over Florida.

" first spacewalk...we were riding on the robot arm high above the (payload) bay... Looking straight down I had this sense of falling, but when I looked at the horizon and saw the curvature of the earth, I knew I was just floating in space. We started at night, the lights were out, and I'm seeing the stars like I've never seen them before...

"On earth, sunrises and sunsets happen over about 30 minutes. Looking down the wing, I see a fine line of white light, and 10 seconds later (there is) a crescent like a moon, but it's the blue earth. About a minute later, this jewel blue ocean is just staring me in the face.

"Your whole life you hear that the world is three fourths water and you accept that intellectually. It takes getting up into space to (see) that. ...I feel very much in tune with the ocean; I understand (its) personality ... I know how to work with it.

"I remember going over the tongue of the ocean in the Bahamas and seeing where I'd spent my teenage years, from the perspective of space. I was thinking about all the fish down there and synthesizing these two worlds together.

"I spent most of my life in the ocean and I understand that. I've only spent a thousand hours or so in space and maybe that's not enough; maybe you've got to live up there for six months to really understand it. Like any other environment you have to understand the parameters and how to work in it. I learned that from commercial diving, and that's helped me a lot with the spacewalks. For me, doing the first walks from the space station, using the new decompression protocol is like the ultimate dive.

"Looking back, it's my love of the ocean that got me into diving, diving caught my interest in space, and commercial diving got me into working techniques on how to do this stuff. So this is the culmination of all those goals and desires, but it all traces back to falling in love with the ocean at a young age."

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