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The Leader

It's Not Rocket Science:
Astronaut Jeff Ashby Navigates Utah's Canyonlands

By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2002, Vol. 17, No. 3

  John Grunsfeld
  Astronaut Jeff Ashby on his recent NOLS course.
© Dave Wolf
The mountains were not the last frontier for astronaut and Colorado-native Jeff Ashby, who has taken two NOLS NASA Leadership Expeditions. Most participants on his NOLS trainings were more comfortable with rocket science than, say, cooking macs and cheese over a Whisperlite, but Ashby, an avid skier who has worked on search and rescue teams in Colorado, knew what to expect. Still, the course taught him lessons about expedition behavior and leadership that have proved invaluable in space.

When Ashby was signed on to command a shuttle crew to the space station, he immediately asked for the group to attend a NOLS course before beginning training for the mission. His concern: The first time most shuttle crews are together for longer than 12 hours is when they strap in to go to space. “With NOLS,” he says, “we’re able to go through the forming and maybe some of the storming stage and would like to be operating at the norming stage when we strap in.”

Ashby’s crew headed into Southeastern Utah’s canyon country for 11 days, which matched exactly the length of their flight. He quickly realized that he was right-the NOLS wilderness expedition had strong applications to their upcoming space expedition. The logistics were a bit different-instead of maneuvering in the shuttle the group had to navigate through narrow canyon walls reaching 60 feet, slide through muddy pools of water, and crawl on another crewmate’s back to access a slot in the rock and set up a belay system.” I think for us the most challenging part was about five days into the course when we were all becoming quite tired and physically drained and found ourselves facing a lot of uncertainty and unknowns about the terrain ahead and our ability to navigate through it,” he remembers. “You would think that there’s a lot of uncertainty in our business of flying in space, but NASA tends to minimize uncertainty by planning for every contingency. You can’t do that in the wilderness.”

Along with learning to deal with uncertainty on an expedition, whether in space or in the wilderness, Ashby came away with improved leadership skills as commander of the shuttle. “Each course I’ve taken has improved my personal leadership skills. Most importantly, they’ve improved my awareness of myself and the leadership styles I’m using.”

As a leader, Ashby found that working as a team was perhaps the greatest lesson they learned in the canyons. “The biggest thing we took away is that a team can accomplish some amazing things working together. It took a considerable amount of teamwork to get over the obstacles on our NOLS course.”

Just like on any NOLS expedition, however, the rough times are the ones when you learn the most and laugh the hardest. “My favorite moment on the course was when we faced one of these water obstacles and we discussed the option of going through it or around it for 30 minutes,” he recalls. “We finally took a vote and one crew member voted to take the dry route, thinking that others would agree to do that as well. Once the vote was complete he was the only person to choose the dry route. After describing it as ‘the great sell out,’ he waded out to the muddy pool so that everybody else could climb onto his back. Of course he was laughing.”

Jeffrey S. Ashby, a NASA Captain, has taken two NOLS-NASA Leadership Expedition courses. He grew up in Colorado where he came to love skiing, backpacking and fly fishing. Ashby has flown a total of 267 orbits around Earth and logged over 400 hours in space. He was a pilot aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999 and Endeavour in April 2001.



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