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 4 of 5)
During his session, Charlie Camarda served as the leader on the last two days. By then everyone was tired, their performance was deteriorating, and they were called on to do an emergency rescue of an “injured” person. The team had to navigate across the frozen lakebed, find out what was wrong, and decide quickly whether to carry the victim back to safety or radio for a helicopter. “You have to be able to make decisions rapidly, size up your crew, and know who’s capable to do the job, and that entails monitoring the health of the other crew members,” says Camarda. “Is that person rested enough? Can he pull a 260-pound sled two miles to rescue a person, or should I pick someone else? It’s cliché, but the weakest link is the weakest person, and the simplest accident or malady of any of the crew could turn into something major in space as well as at Cold Lake.”
Camarda gives the experience high marks for exposing interpersonal friction. “In a very short period of time, you can tell different characteristics and traits of your fellow crew members that, if extrapolated over a period of time, could potentially be very annoying,” he says. “They introduced enough tedious work, enough physical labor that you were tired, fatigued. There was sleep deprivation. By four days into the six days you can notice a drop in performance.”
Nasty surprises pumped up the stress. Someone’s sleeping bag suddenly went missing. An “injured” snowmobiler appeared out of nowhere, screaming for help. Then there were the snow fleas. Lee Morin found them in his camp-stove coffee one chilly morning in the first week of March. “They look like coffee grounds until you realize they are climbing up out of the snow and into your food,” he says. He happened to be carrying an otoscope, an ear probe with a light and a magnifying lens, and when he trained it on the snow fleas, he saw they resemble cockroaches.
As for slow periods, Mike Massimino recalls that his teammates passed the time telling stories about themselves—from childhood to college and the military to how they met their spouses—and getting to know one another better. A movie buff, Massimino kept everyone amused with his Godfather monologues. Levity defused conflict.
Massimino says the Cold Lake experience helped him learn some of the finer points of leadership. “Sometimes our tendency might be to not complain that ‘I’m feeling crummy,’ to not want to bring the group down,” he says. “It’s important for a leader to notice these things and look for signs. Who needs help? Who needs rest? Who needs to go to the bathroom? Things that sound almost silly are very important out there.”
The program is getting mixed reviews. Dan Tani loved the outdoor training. “I haven’t been in space, but I really feel like I’ve been in the environment,” says the MIT mechanical engineering grad. “I feel like I won’t have to go up the same steep learning curve that other first-timers will.”
Of the astronauts who have not gone through the training, some are skeptical. “It’s a solution in search of a problem,” says one, not wanting to be identified. Others say Cold Lake is the “in thing” to do to curry favors with Johnson Space Center officials who decide on flight assignments.
Patricia Santy, a former NASA flight surgeon and author of Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Selection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts, thinks the training is merely a token gesture. “I’m glad that they’re finally doing this,” she says, “but I suspect it’s just this superficial attempt to allay any public criticism by showing [NASA] has some psychological stuff.”