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.