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Expedition Leadership | Leadership Types | Leadership Skills
Leadership in 30 Days | Leadership Profiles

John Grunsfeld

John GrunsfeldLeadership Position: NASA Chief Scientist
NOLS Graduate: 1974 Wind River Wilderness course

As an elementary school student on Chicago's South Side, John Grunsfeld used to sketch in the margins of his school papers. He'd draw pictures of snow-capped mountains and designs for space ships. He dreamt about going to the mountain wilderness of the West and the even wilder expanse of space.

In 1974, John realized one of those dreams when, at 15, he took his first NOLS course, a Wind River Wilderness course. It was a profound experience, validating his longing to climb mountains, explore the outdoors, and experience nature firsthand. That course also taught him the importance of leadership skills in expeditions. During the fly fishing portion of that course, for example, John opted to stay back at camp. "One of my instructors came up to me and asked what the heck I was doing in camp and I told him I already knew how to fish," recollects John. "He about hit me over the head and said, 'Well, then go teach somebody else how to fish!' That made a big impact on me, the importance of sharing my knowledge with others on an expedition. Those leadership skills definitely helped me later life as a student, scientist, and astronaut."

In 1980, John graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in physics, followed by a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Chicago. While in college and graduate school John introduced mountaineering to many of his friends, indoctrinating them with the same concepts of minimum impact camping, tolerance of adversity, and decision making skills that he learned in his first NOLS course. He also applied many of the same lessons to expeditions that he led around the world in his work as an experimental astrophysicist. To help him in his exploits to the mountains he took another NOLS course, a snow and ice seminar in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1995, he realized his dream to explore the wilds of space as an astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on a 17-day astronomy mission, and again in 1997 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis visiting the Russian Mir Space Station. Even though the heights of space might seem like a long way from the Wind River Range in Wyoming, John sees a lot of parallels between space expeditions and the challenges of a NOLS course.

"Many of the same lessons apply," says John. "All of the team members have to show good expedition behavior and the same lessons in personal conduct and leadership conduct apply." Even some of the physical training has similar aspects. Indeed, John's love of mountaineering and climbing has led to the inclusion of a climbing wall in the astronaut gym. John finds that climbing and movement in space call for the same forethought and physical attributes like forearm strength. "We can't afford to make any mistakes when we are outside of the Space Shuttle in our space suits, working on the space telescope. It's very much like rock or ice climbing, we even wear backpacks! Of course instead of a difficult rock pitch, we're working on a billion dollar international resource."

"Various aspects of my NOLS education were perfect for astronaut training: enjoying adversity, making decisions under stress, leadership skills, teamwork, team building, enjoying nature, learning science, hands on training with real equipment… it was so important."

Grad Profiles in Alphabetical Order

Pete Athans
Janice Bloom
David Breashears
Diane Brinkley
Carlos Buhler
Caroline Byrd
Archie Clemins
Columbia Crew
Mike DiDonna
Chris Gergen
John Grunsfeld
Ryan Hughes
Bruce Jacobsen
Sebastian Junger
Tom Kiernan
Alex Matthiessen
Tori McClure
Kitty Phillips
Guy Santiago
Tom Scott
Kat Taylor
Terri Watson
Louisa Willcox


Expedition Leadership | Leadership Types | Leadership Skills
Leadership in 30 Days | Leadership Profiles


Wind River Wilderness courses learn fly-fishing skills in high alpine lakes and streams famous for their abundance of trout.
© Kevin Bergstrom

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