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How to Get Along in Space

NASA has started a new training program to help space station residents fight off cabin fever.

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.

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.”

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