How to Get Along in Space
NASA has started a new training program to help space station residents fight off cabin fever.
- By Beth Dickey
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 3 of 5)
Still, even with flaws, Kanas believes his team’s study is the first to make significant observations about the psychosocial dimensions of long-term spaceflight.
In the wake of the Mir missions, says chief astronaut Charlie Precourt, “we recognized we were not as prepared as we ought to have been, either from a management standpoint or a crew training standpoint. We saw shortfalls involving crew members’ understanding of the personal interactions, which could happen to anybody, even brothers and sisters….
“We started to look at other [training] models that are out there, like expeditions to Antarctica and the outdoor leadership schools, that would…arm people with the right tools to persevere through the hard times.”
The architects of the training regime that NASA is instituting include Precourt and Shannon Lucid, the second astronaut to live aboard Mir. Says Lucid: “Everybody that came back from Mir said what I said: It doesn’t make any difference if you have the most high-tech, latest, state-of-the-art equipment. If you don’t have a crew that gets along, you’ll have a miserable experience.”
The training regime begins at the Johnson center with lectures by experts—arctic explorers, astronauts who went to Mir—on leadership and lessons learned. Reading assignments about psychology and polar expeditions supplement the classroom work. Psychologists who understand the explorer’s mindset spend time with the astronauts, prompting them to think about their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and responses to crisis situations. After that come the field trips: one to Cold Lake and a similar one to the National Outdoor Leadership School in Utah. Then the astronauts return to the Johnson center, where they are isolated in a chamber for a week, with no contact with the outside world. They prepare meals and give themselves sponge baths just as they would on the space station. NASA also sends astronauts to the Star City cosmonaut training center outside Moscow for courses in winter and water survival.
For the Cold Lake portion of the training, it wasn’t easy for the astronauts to figure out how to prepare. Participants in the first two sessions were cagey, not wanting to reveal anything to subsequent participants that might spoil the training. “That was sort of unsettling,” says Lee Morin. “You got to feeling like you were asking for the secret questions on the test or something.”
A total of 18 people—17 astronauts and one flight surgeon-psychiatrist—took part in the training. Each group consisted of a mix of people with and without spaceflight experience. Three people (all rookies) were selected to take turns leading, each for two of the six days. “The three things we need to learn are leadership, followership, and self-maintenance,” says Dan Tani, a rookie who participated in the third session. “This is an excellent environment to learn those three things separately and intensively.”
Nearly everyone who participated returned to Houston changed—mostly in little ways. When Lee Morin, a microbiologist and former Navy flight surgeon awaiting his first flight assignment, took his turn as leader, he came across as bossy. He interpreted his civilian teammates’ behavior as passive-aggressive and they, in turn, wondered what had gotten into him. It wasn’t long before he learned to adjust his style to suit the team. “What I needed to do was be tolerant of them being more laid back than I would normally expect from military subordinates,” he says.