About two years ago, Rick Husband, space shuttle Columbia's flight commander, looked over his crew -- an Indian-born flight engineer, an African-American payload commander, the first Israeli astronaut and three other rookies -- and decided to try to bond the team before the pressure of training for a complicated, dual-shift, 16-day spaceflight tested everyone's resolve.
To help the culturally diverse and relatively inexperienced group -- the seven astronauts' combined flight history numbers only three missions -- Husband invited his crewmates to participate in a leadership training program that aims to build problem-solving skills, stimulate healthy group dynamics and teach individuals to manage stress.
For 10 days, the Columbia crew wandered in the Wyoming mountains, carting 55-pound backpacks stuffed with tents, sleeping bags, food and survival gear. Accompanied by two instructors from the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, the astronauts hiked and climbed, set up camps, and took turns navigating, organizing and motivating their companions.
"We got to learn a lot about how each of us, as individuals, deal with situations," said Husband. "It's a physical challenge with the backpacks and the walking up and down and it's a personal challenge learning how to keep track of all your equipment."
The outdoor environment helped the crewmembers to "learn to work together, to pull together and ... learn more about each other," he continued. "So that when you come back you know each other very, very well and you know each others' strengths and weaknesses. You can maximize that during the rest of your training."
NOLS has been part of the U.S. training program for long-duration space station missions, but the Columbia astronauts were the first shuttle crew to participate in the program. Since then, other shuttle crews, including those assigned to a space station assembly mission that flew ahead of Columbia last fall, have taken the NOLS course.
"You find a huge difference in mission success based on crew dynamics," deputy chief astronaut Andrew Thomas told United Press International. Thomas said he became much more interested in crew dynamics after living on the Russian Mir space station for four-and-a-half months as part of a pilot program that preceded the U.S.-Russian International Space Station collaboration.
"We have crews that have mixed backgrounds, mixed professions, mixed cultures and they all have different leadership and different problem-solving approaches," he said.
"For example, some people feel like they have to do everything, just take charge of the situation and do it all. That's very maladaptive from a team's point of view. People who do that have a hard time backing off. We can help them recognize it early on and counsel them, " said Thomas.
The point of the training is not to generate stress, but to create situations that spur participants to practice leadership skills. Each day, a leader is designated and made responsible for a particular task, such as getting the team from one point to another. Initially, the instructors are role models, but they soon step into the background to let the participants take over, said John Kanengieter, director of NOLS professional training institute.
"Navigation is always an interesting exercise," Kanengieter told UPI. "The group might get off-course, or maybe the leader makes a poor navigation decision and hikes away a couple of miles from where they actually want to be. It plays out in group dynamics. By 3 p.m., folks are starting to get tired and it's a real critical moment for the leader. How do you motivate a group of people to put back on their 55-pound packs and hike two miles they just traversed? Typically, someone gets defensive; they're tired and snappy. Their blood sugar is low and they are under stress."
As a whole, the astronauts, who have been screened carefully and carry a wide array of life skills to fall back on long before they set foot in the wilderness, are fantastic students, added Kanengieter. "They have been exceptionally good at looking at their own mistakes and strengths and figuring out how they can step into a situation."
"It was a very positive experience to work together and work through learning more about each other and our different strengths and weaknesses, and covering for each other," said Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark, who will be flying in space for the first time. "Although it wasn't the same as a spaceflight, it was certainly a great learning opportunity, and made me feel even better about going ahead and doing this."
(Editors: UPI Photo #WAS2003010202 is available)