NOLS: National Outdoor Leadership School Home

Excerpts from a NOLS Leader article from Rachel Harris

  Top: NASA’s NOLS grads, and a few addtional crew members, enjoy life without gravity. Middle: NASA astronaut and two-time NOLS grad Scott Parazynski, along with the rest of the STS-120 crew, worked tirelessly to repair the International Space Staion solar panels. “For most people involved, it was the technical highlight of their careers,” said astronaut Dan Tani. Bottom:John Grunsfeld shows his NOLS pride on a mission to the Hubble Telescope.
Photo: Courtesy of NASA, Courtesy of NASA, and Courtesy of John Grunsfeld

Astronauts exploring space are on the ultimate wilderness expedition. The fundamental skills learned on a NOLS course—expedition behavior, planning, decision-making, wilderness medicine, communication, cooking, self care, team care, leadership, and followership—are all very applicable, and essential, to space travel and to a high-functioning crew of astronauts.

“The NOLS curriculum is a great starting point, a foundation on which to build the space flight elements,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA astronaut and four-time NOLS grad. “I’ve seen my colleagues who have been through our NOLS programs at NASA apply the NOLS lessons during training and spaceflight. It has been a winning combination.”

The NOLS-NASA relationship has its roots in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. NASA sought to forge a partnership with the former Soviet Union in order to send American astronauts to the Russian Mir Space Station, forming the first extended space-stay program for American astronauts. Incidentally, “Mir” is Russian for “peace.”
“It’s different to go on long expeditions than on shorter missions,” NOLS Director for Leadership John Kanengieter said. “Originally NASA was looking at another organization to train NASA astronauts for these types of expeditions, but then astronaut John Grunsfeld told them to check out NOLS. So we submitted a proposal and ran a pilot program in 1999. It was a success and now NOLS has [run 30 courses and] trained over 90 percent of NASA astronauts.”

The NOLS curriculum for NASA does not differ significantly from regular course curriculum, but does place a greater emphasis on leadership skills such as communication skills and tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, and less of an emphasis on outdoor skills and environmental studies.

“Team building is really important for shorter shuttle flights,” Tani says. “NASA uses NOLS as a means to teach employees about themselves and what a team is. The crew that took me on my space station mission in 2007 had done a course together as well, and we all became fast friends. We still have stories that we share to this day.”
The NOLS curriculum on the NASA Leadership Expeditions is designed to complement the impressive amount of mission training the astronauts have prior to the course. NOLS’ model of expeditionary leadership is relevant to any team functioning in complex and dynamic situations. “This kind of training is important because we are not just talking theory, but giving the astronauts a chance to get out there as a team, to see how they interact and work together under stress and fatigue,” Kanengieter said.

Astronauts John Grunsfeld and Dan Tani are prime examples of those who transfer NOLS skills to new situations and experiences. Grunsfeld, in particular, knows what it is like to deal with adversity and uncertainty. With countless space flights under his belt, he is no stranger to exploring the unknown.

“I’ve always longed to go explore the wilderness,” Grunsfeld said. “In middle school I began to go on Sierra Club outings with a friend of the family and rock climbing on the cliffs at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. I vicariously enjoyed the exploits of ‘real’ explorers in the pages of National Geographic and the films of Jacques Cousteau and others, including the astronauts.”

When Grunsfeld was a kid he would sketch rockets and mountains in the margins of his notebooks, thinking he might like to be an explorer of the wilderness, here on Earth and beyond. “It was a kid’s dream at a time when the U.S. was sending people to space for the first time. As a young boy, I played astronaut because they were the heroes of that time.”

Now he has flown missions to study stars using multi-million dollar Space Shuttle telescopes, visited the International Space Station, and upgraded the Hubble Space Telescope on three different missions. He says that he still uses the leadership skills he learned on his NOLS courses, as well as the technical skills.

“NOLS taught me that keeping current in leadership and technical skills is a continuous learning challenge. My first NOLS course gave me the confidence to approach new endeavors with the basic tools to succeed in working with other like-minded explorers.”
When dealing with sticky situations in space, Grunsfeld says he often treats the problem as he would any problem in the wilderness. “I have a very consistent approach to spaceflight and my expeditions in the outdoors,” Grunsfeld said. “I’ve applied the lessons learned in both directions.”

Tani has been on two NOLS Leadership Expeditions, a backpacking course in the canyons of Utah in addition to the sea kayaking course in Alaska.

“I didn’t know anything about NOLS before I went on my first course in 1999,” Tani said. “A 10-day backpacking expedition seemed fun, but I had never really been on a trip like that. I was 40 and had never heard of followership. I also didn’t have many expectations for the academic part of the course. Overall, it was physically exhilarating and helped me better understand the idea of teamwork. The experience was invaluable.”

Transferable Skills

Just three months after their NOLS sea kayaking course in Alaska, the crew that Dan Tani was a part of was able to put that invaluable experience to the test.

Ready to tackle any last-minute emergencies that could arise on their International Space Station mission, the crew of engineers was called into action suddenly when one of the solar wings that powers the International Space Station tore while being deployed.

“During the unfurling, the sun went behind the arrays, making it very difficult to watch,” Tani said. “At that very moment, the guide wires on the array snagged and became tangled.” By the time the crew stopped the panel from unfurling, there was a fresh two and a half-foot hole on the gleaming gold surface of the $5.6 million panel.

“This was a very serious problem,” Tani said. “The arrays needed to be fully deployed for them to be rotated to point them to the sun so that they can produce the maximum power [for the space station].”
Hundreds of NASA engineers shifted into high gear, throwing the original flight plan out the window and working to figure out a safe way for the astronauts to repair the solar array.

It sounds like a routine repair, but there was a tricky twist. The solar panels could not be turned off and were generating 120 volts of electricity while NASA astronaut and fellow NOLS grad Scott Parazynski worked to repair the panels while hooked to the end of a 90-foot arm and boom with an extension. If Parazynski were shocked during repairs, he would be over half an hour from medical help.
In true NOLS style, the team rallied to deal with the situation at hand, drawing on the leadership skills they learned on their course. Using wire and pieces of aluminum along with homemade tools, Parazynski and the rest of the crew successfully repaired the panel joint and surface damage.

“This repair was the type of activity that would take over a year to design and would typically require over a year of crew training—and we did it with three days of procedure development and zero crew training,” Tani said. “The trust between the ground and the crew—and among the crew—was critical.”
The astronauts had spent countless hours practicing planned space walks safely on the ground prior to the launch, but were not trained to deal with this specific situation. Instead of being overwhelmed, the crew looked at the challenge as an adventure.

“It was pretty stressful, but there was that same sense as on our NOLS course that we were doing it together,” Tani said. “We were laughing and joking the whole time. That difficult day [in Alaska] became one of the strongest threads in the fabric of our relationship. Having the memory of that day helped.”


NOLS has run 30 courses for NASA and trained over 90% of NASA astronauts.

Graphic: Allison Jackson

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