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The Leader

NOLS in Space

By John Grunsfeld
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2002, Vol. 17, No. 3

  John Grunsfeld
  © NASA
On a clear late-October morning in the fall of 2001, we departed Gravel Crossing and slowly descended into White Canyon. Splashing through the cool water, our team of seven plus two NOLS instructors began our circumnavigation of the Jacob’s Chair formation in Southeastern Utah. While this may have been a normal start for a NOLS course, it was not your typical astronaut training.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and NOLS have teamed up to create a series of mini-expedition courses to help astronauts exercise leadership and expedition skills. As NASA moves from sending people into space to work on short trips in the Space Shuttle, to living in space for months on the International Space Station, and eventual trips beyond the near-earth environment, expedition skills are becoming increasingly important. Today nearly 30 percent of all NASA astronauts have been on a NOLS-NASA Leadership Expedition through NASA’s Expedition Corps, which coordinates astronaut training at NASA.

As a graduate of a Wind River Wilderness Course (1974), and a Snow and Ice Seminar (1986) I have a great respect for the ability of NOLS courses to use the outdoors as a venue for not only outdoor leadership education but also for life in general. This belief in life as an expedition applies directly to life in earth’s orbit aboard a space shuttle. I was thrilled when NASA signed on with NOLS to use Utah’s Canyonlands and Wyoming’s Wind River Range to teach two-week courses to astronauts.

 John Grunsfeld
 © John Abel.
When I was selected as Payload Commander for the Hubble Space Telescope’s (HST) Fourth Servicing Mission STS-109 (the hundred and ninth Space Shuttle mission), I immediately signed on our space walking crew of four to attend one of the NOLS-NASA Leadership Expeditions. The space walkers consisted of Jim Newman, Mike Massimino, Rick Linnehan and me. The rest of the crew wasn’t assigned until much later, so unfortunately they missed out on the fun. On STS-109 our mission was to go up to the Hubble and perform five space walks to upgrade the telescope with a new power system, install a new scientific instrument, and restore vision to an instrument installed on a previous flight. As Payload Commander I was responsible for the training and execution of the space walks and the Hubble Space Telescope operations. Scott Altman, the mission commander, Duane Carey, our pilot, and Nancy Currie, our flight engineer, joined us a few months later to train for the flight. On board for our Canyonlands expedition we had instructors Jeffrey Post and John Abel, STS 109 space walking crew members, and astronauts Alan Poindexter, Lee Archambault and Charlie Camarda. Without going through all of the goals of the entire NOLS curriculum in detail, suffice it to say that a two-week expedition in the wilderness or on a space shuttle share nearly all of the same considerations of expedition behavior.

A few of the traits and qualities of a good crew member include tolerance for adversity, competency and skills, vision and action, flexibility, and quick decision making in a crisis. While the Space Shuttle is a fantastic technological marvel with many layers of redundancy, it nevertheless requires a wide variety of expedition skills. We leave planet Earth on top of a rocket with 7 million pounds of thrust, live in a small camper-sized vehicle with seven people, and do space walks in a vacuum wearing only fabric and fiberglass suits and bubble helmets.

  Group Photo
  © John Abel.
On our circumnavigation we experienced a variety of conditions ranging from warm sunlit days in the canyons, to rain, and even hiking over snow-covered slabs. For some of our rank just carrying a 60- to 70-pound pack was a new experience. For all of us, pushing our floating packs in front of us while swimming through a narrow canyon filled with murky water was a first. As we traversed from White Canyon into Long Canyon we added rappelling and rock climbing to our list of skills. Although I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, the canyons offer a whole new host of interesting issues. One night we huddled under a low overhang while listening to the staccato sounds of rain on rock. All through the storm I kept thinking of our precarious position on a ledge and the threat of flash flooding. As astronauts, the one element that we brought to the table (or rock or ledge) is a culture that places safety first. As we hiked and held impromptu lectures we addressed the physical challenges in a framework that allowed us to only take appropriate risks and ensure the safety of the entire team. This is one of the analogs that tied the NOLS experience to space flight, the ultimate purpose of our course.

Hiking along with my space-walking buddies gave me a chance to learn about their leadership and followership qualities. It also enabled me to exercise my leadership style with their personalities to learn what works well and what doesn’t. At one turn in the canyon we came upon a remarkably intact set of Anasazi houses built into the canyon walls. There were fragments of pottery and bits of old corncobs strewn about. Several of the stone enclosures were in good defensive position, out of reach from the casual rock scrambler. At least in the current epoch we haven’t experienced anything like this in space.

Near the end of the course we camped inside a large grotto. After a fine campsite dinner, our instructors retreated to their tent for a few minutes before our evening lecture. This was Halloween evening, and Jeffrey and John had gone to get out a couple of masks to give us a good scare by our crackling float wood fire. When they returned adorned with costumes, they found seven green aliens and ghosts sitting in place of some grubby astronauts! We had a great evening topped by Jim Newman recounting from memory “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

The next day we awoke to a dark sky with Canis Major and Sirius (the dog star) framed in the Grotto outline. That set the theme for our last day in the canyon: Hike until the dogs come home. We sped through the remaining challenges, with a quick swim and a bit of rock scrambling to end up a short hike away from our starting point.

Going into the NOLS expedition, a few of the participants were skeptical of the applications to NASA. After a little more than a week in the field the opinions were unanimous that training in leadership and expedition behavior is directly relevant to the business of space flight.

From the Wilds of Utah to the Wilds of Space:
The Expedition Aboard Columbia

  Take off
  © NASA.
On March 1, 2002 our STS-109 team took all the skills we learned at NOLS and during our NASA training and launched into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. We had trained hard and long on all of our tasks ranging from the ascent into orbit, to grappling with the robotic arm on Hubble, and especially the space walks. For every hour we spent outside of Columbia in our space suits, we trained roughly 12 hours in a 6-million-gallon swimming pool. Just like NOLS our credo is to train, train, and train some more.

One of the most important teamwork lessons we observed is to recognize that people doing complex tasks will make mistakes. At one point Mike was having difficulty with the reaction wheel, and together we caught a small error, fixed it and moved on to the next task. That process of trapping errors, correcting them and moving on is what allows teams to do complex work. Perhaps the most important attribute of this process is the ability to put problems behind and move on to the next task. True in climbing and true in space.

I have always been especially struck by the close parallels between winter mountaineering and space walking. In both cases one has to work in bulky suits with heavy backpacks using specialized tools. Issues such as belays and protection are also similar, as in space we need to stay tethered to the Space Shuttle or risk being lost in space. An advantage we enjoy while working in space is that the 350-pound space suits are easy to wear, as we are weightless in the free-fall environment orbiting planet Earth at 17,500 mph. There are many times when I’ve wished that my 90-pound backpack full of winter gear was weightless in the mountains as well. Another similarity is that both winter climbing and space walking require us to work in bulky gloves. In the space case the gloves are pressurized so that the simple effort to open and close your hand requires physical work. For that reason the tasks in space are forearm intensive and require that we train hard in the gym in advance of a flight.

Our biggest challenge came on the third space walking day when we had to change out the central power-switching box on the telescope, called the Power Control Unit (PCU). The PCU is the main power relay box for the whole Hubble Space Telescope. A problem with the old one threatened to end the telescope’s life early, so NASA decided to change it out. Early in the morning (space morning) Rick Linnehan, my space walking partner, and I got into our space suits. After my spacesuit was turned on, Jim noticed that it began to leak water out of the cooling water tank. We quickly changed out the upper part of the space suit with one of the other team’s suits, and off we went, just a couple of hours late.

Finally out in the clear vacuum of space, Rick and I started preparing the telescope for a complete power-down, the first time in 12 years in orbit! I put thermal covers on some of the temperature-sensitive bays (it gets cold in space without heaters). Rick began disconnecting batteries, and I lowered light-covers over the star tracker cameras.

During training I joked that my task was “Zen and the art of connectors” in that to work on the telescope Rick and I needed extreme concentration, patience and a little bit of skill. At one point I looked at one particular connector and started laughing, thinking “this is it, the PCU task ends here.” I didn’t think I could get access to align and mate the connector with my big gloves. After trying a couple of different approaches, I finally used my connector tool in a unique manner, and zip it went on. Seven more connections and I was done. This task reminded me most of rock climbing on a lead that’s close to my personal limits. In many ways it’s this extreme concentration and application of training and physical skill that makes mountaineering and space flight so rewarding.

We reconnected the HST batteries, powered the telescope back on, and went back to the barn, in this case the barn being the airlock on the Space Shuttle. Overnight, the ground commanded the Hubble systems back on line, and after a day of work in space we now have a Hubble power system that will allow the telescope continued operation well into the future. On board Columbia I went to sleep satisfied I did an honest day’s work, and very tired.

 NOLS in Space
 © NASA.
Over the next few days we added a new digital camera to the Hubble that has already produced some fantastic images of the Universe and put a mechanical cooling system inside the telescope, which brought the Infrared camera back into operation.

After deploying the telescope, we had a well-earned day off, which gave me a chance to look out the window and scope out my next terrestrial adventures. Looking down at planet Earth 350 miles below, I can’t help but observe how thin and apparently fragile is the Earth’s atmosphere. It is also striking that on nearly all of the landmass visible from our orbit there was evidence of people modifying the environment.

Finally, after over 10 days in space and traveling 4.5 million miles, we returned to our starting place, gliding to a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

There is no doubt in my mind that my NOLS experience, starting with Paul Petzoldt in the old lumberyard, to my team’s recent experience in Utah, contributed to the success of this latest Hubble mission. I am confident that, as NASA moves further into the realm of having humans living in space, the NOLS training will continue to play a role in the success of these space expeditions.

John M. Grunsfeld, Ph.D., is a two-time NOLS grad (WRW 6/24/74, ICE 9/1/86) and has been instrumental in creating NOLS-NASA Leadership Expeditions. His experiences in space include flights aboard Endeavour in 1995, Atlantis in 1997, and Discovery in 1999. His most recent expedition was aboard Columbia this March. John enjoys being in the terrestrial wilderness when he’s not in space, mountaineering, sailing, biking, and spending time with his wife, Carol, and two children.



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