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NOLS Says Good-bye to Seven of its Best

By Kerry Brophy

Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2003, Vol. 18, No. 2

 
 
‘The Perfect Team:’ The crew of Columbia gathered together during their NOLS-NASA Leadership Expedition in August, 2001. Pictured (top): Dave Brown, Rick Husband, Mike Anderson; (bottom): Willie McCool, Ilan Ramon, Laurel Clark, and Kalpana Chawla.
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It is said that heroes often seem larger than life, but when the crew of the space shuttle Columbia spoke with members of the NOLS community one summer morning in 2001, they seemed even larger than that. The seven astronauts had just finished a 12-day, 50-mile expedition with NOLS’ Professional Training Institute to learn leadership skills and teamwork in preparation for their shuttle flight. They had hiked to the rough, rocky granite summit of Wind River Peak at 13,192 feet, and they had come back down into Lander, Wyo., home of NOLS’ headquarters, to do an informal presentation before an audience of eager, star-struck NOLS staff and family.

That day in the historic Noble Hotel the astronauts of STS-107 looked much like all NOLS grads do after the end of a course — freshly showered, still a bit dirty and hairy, and still radiant with the thrill of adventure. But these seven campers were their own unique breed of adventurers, standing out even in the Noble Hotel amidst photos of early mountaineers and a legacy of outdoor exploration.

“We all thought of them as ‘our astronauts,’” recalls Donna Orr, a NOLS employee who was in the audience. “It meant a lot to have the astronauts initiate the talk because they felt they wanted to give something back to the NOLS community. It was amazing to hear them say what we do [at NOLS] is impressive since we were so in awe of what they do.”

Indeed, much of the crew’s talk centered around the parallels between space flight and living in the wilderness with NOLS. Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla talked in depth about the similarities between watching the sun come up over earth from her small window in space and watching the sun rise from the window of her tent in the Winds. Kalpana also talked about living together in small quarters and a phenomenon you can’t escape even on the last frontier — trash. Commander Rick Husband shared his thoughts on teamwork, both at NOLS and at NASA, and each of the astronauts addressed the children in the audience, talking about the importance of setting goals and working hard in school.

We all marveled that, despite appearances, this wasn’t your typical group of NOLS students — two were medical doctors, one a top gun pilot, another an aerospace engineer, and all national heroes. And what they were preparing for was much more than an expedition into the mountains. But like all NOLS grads they talked about how they had to adjust to heavy packs, the thin air and off trail hiking. They practiced Leave No Trace, longed for a hot shower, and burned brownies while learning how to use a Whisper-lite stove. They also had to live in tight quarters for the duration of the course, just as they would during the 16-day Columbia flight. As all NOLS grads know, there’s something about living in the wilderness for an extended period of time that really, really lets you get to know a person.

“Being in the wilderness,” says John Kanengieter, who led the course with instructor Andy Cline, “tends to bring people together. It removes any façade and brings out the real person. In this case, it brought out the best of everyone. They were the perfect team.”

Col. Rick Husband, remembers Kanengieter, was the “quintessential NOLS leader,” very calm and reassuring and also very humble.

Dr. Kalpana Chawla, known as K.C., was a bird-watcher, a tiny woman who could carry more weight than most of the men.

Dave Brown had been a gymnast and a circus performer and then one day said to himself, ‘maybe I’ll become a doctor,’ and after he’d done that said, ‘OK, now I want to be a fighter pilot’ and after that decided he’d become an astronaut.

Payload Commander Mike Anderson wasn’t sold on the idea of backcountry expeditions at first, but by the end was making plans to take his family out on a trip.

 
Willie McCool, Instructor John Kanengieter, Ilan Ramon and Rick Husband. “Being in the wilderness,” says Kanengieter, “tends to bring people together.”
When Kanengieter first met top-gun pilot Willie McCool, he remembers expecting Tom Cruise to walk into the room but instead found himself face to face with a guy who looked more like Opie Taylor, Ron Howard’s character on The Andy Griffith Show. McCool, says Kanengieter, was the motivator. “I’ve never met anyone who had more positive energy than that guy.”

Laurel Clark, a flight surgeon, was the group’s nurturer and was always talking about what it’s like to juggle being a parent and an astronaut at the same time.

Israeli Col. Ilan Ramon was “carrying the weight of his nation on his shoulders,” remembers Kanengieter, and often made the crew mean batches of “cowboy coffee.”

So when the crew of Columbia finally lifted off into space, they knew one another well. They had seen each other at trying times, like at the end of the first day of the NOLS course when they veered off route and had to backtrack to find their campsite. They had seen each other tired, sweaty and covered in dirt. But they had also been together for some great memories, like when they decided to take a plunge in a high mountain lake, or when Commander Rick Husband led the crew in a comic rendition of the song “Kumbaya.”

These moments, said Rick Husband before the mission, brought the crew together like no other aspect of their NASA training. By the end of the course, both Kanengieter and Cline were good friends with the seven astronauts.

The instructors received emails from the crew during the Columbia mission. Kanengieter remembers one in particular, from Commander Husband.

“We’re having a great time up here,” wrote Husband, “and are glad for the role you played in our lives…The parallel [to the NOLS course] is uncanny. Suffice it to say, we’d love to have you up here today. You two [Kanengieter and Cline] are in our thoughts as we go through the daily routine working together as a crew.”

Today, Kanengieter and Cline, as well as the rest of the NOLS community, are left with many memories. Both instructors will never forget looking up at the stars with the crew during what they called their ‘astrobivvy,’ a night they slept outside. And many of us had a chance to talk personally with the astronauts after they spoke in the Noble Hotel.

Each in our own way, we are proud to have met them and proud that, when they lifted off into space, they were carrying a map of Wind River Peak in the shuttle.

Kanengieter remembers the day they climbed the peak. “They decided if they were going to do it, they were going to do it together,” he says. “They decided if they supported each other, they could make it.” And they did make it. Upon reaching the summit, the crew gathered for a photo and a short rest. Commander Husband began to sing “Amazing Grace” and others chimed in. Kanengieter picked up his emergency cell phone and dialed the astronaut office in Houston, and the team called out proudly, “Houston, Columbia. Columbia’s landed.”

 
 
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These seven campers were their own unique breed of adventurers, standing out even in the Noble Hotel amidst photos of early mountaineers and a legacy of outdoor exploration.
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