NASA astronauts, now NOLS grads, chat with ‘NOLS in the AM’

By baur555

Feb 17, 2006

Nols_nasa_04At 8:30 this morning, recently minted NOLS grads sat down before roughly 60 NOLS staff members in the Headquarters lounge for a talk about their nine days in the Wyoming wilderness. With Lander’s fresh snow glaring outside, NASA astronauts Suni Williams, Ed Lu, Clayton Anderson, Robert Thirsk, Koichi Wakata and Rex Walheim discussed their recent experience; from learning the value of leadership styles, the similarities of exploration in the mountains and space, the joys of backcountry cooking and what it’s like to “drop trow” when it’s -20 degrees out.

Nols_nasa_03The six astronauts - four Americans, a Canadian and a Japanese - claimed their NOLS experience fit perfectly into NASA training. Lu, comparing their backcountry trip to NASA simulation training, said NOLS was valuable for the reality of the situations, “instead of pressing a reset button, you really are held accountable for your actions.” Wakata, a Japanese astronaut who has spent the last 13 years training in the US for an eventual role on the International Space Station, compared the intensity of the experience of space travel with that of the winter mountains, saying it’s such a sensory overload, “you almost feel as if you are in a dream.”

Nols_nasa_02None of the astronauts denied the hardships of their experience. Anderson claimed his fellow coursemates “learned a few new words” while he experienced the frustration of learning to ski in the backcountry. Williams spoke of the difficulty of sleeping in a quinzhee while sandwiched between 2 snoring men. Like many who have experienced a NOLS course, the hardships were now discussed positively and with humor. Anderson said he had gone from anxiety to frustration, then into a feeling of rising confidence and finally satisfaction.

Nols_nasa_05The astronauts conferred on the excellence of their instructors, Steve Whitney and Ian McCammon, whom they called a picture of “ultimate competence.”

Freshly showered and finally warm, the astronauts were looking forward; Williams ready for a vacation in the tropics, Thirsk anticipating a weekend with his family and Wakata excited for a meal of fresh sushi.

Chris Morris, NOLS intern

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While NOLS staff danced and ping-ponged their way through the annual holiday party, three instructors gathered around a television in the newly renovated Noble Hotel to watch the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. Revelers may have thought the trio rude or antisocial, but Missy White, Chris Brauneis and Tod Schimelpfenig were merely keeping tabs on seven former students hurtling towards the International Space Station. Brauneis later recalled a sizable pit in his stomach that persisted until the crew of STS–116 safely cleared the pad of the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
    A successful launch behind them, the crew shifted their focus to re-wiring the International Space Station, the task that brought them together and, indirectly, to NOLS, where they learned the skills to work effectively and efficiently as a team. White and Brauneis led astronauts Christer Fuglesang, Robert Curbeam, Joan Higginbotham, Bill Oefelein, Nick Patrick and Mark Polansky (Suni Williams attended a separate NOLS course in 2006) through the canyons of Utah’s Dirty Devil Wilderness in June of 2005. They practiced leadership while increasing their threshold for uncertainty by adapting to the variables that inevitably complicate a group’s plans. “Nothing is contrived on a NOLS course,” Brauneis noted, so the principles of navigating one’s teammates through a tricky route are directly applicable to, say, managing the risks of a spacewalk.
    NOLS and NASA have a long and mutually beneficial relationship. Instructors are able to sharpen their teaching tools and astronauts build foundations for successful expeditions. The crew of STS–116 is only one of the most recent in a series of NASA courses. To learn more about NOLS and NASA, or about the crew and mission of STS–116, visit the NOLS and NASA websites.

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