Team spirit in space

February 1, 2017 - 12:00am -- Susanne R Janssen

Team spirit in space
A former astronaut shares how to get along with others, whether in a tiny spaceship or back on the ground

In the world of Star Wars, there’s always a hero who saves the day — they stumble into their adventure and just turn everything around. Sometimes it’s with the help of others, but mostly due to their super abilities.

The reality of astronauts is quite different. “In space, you have to work as a team; otherwise you wouldn’t survive,” says Tom Jones. He flew four times on a space shuttle, conducted several spacewalks and knows a lot about what is needed to prepare for these adventures: determination and a lot of training.

For him, it started at a young age. Jones, a planetary scientist and now a space operations consultant, had discovered his dream of flying into space thanks to a gift from his grandmother. When he was five years old, she bought him a book about space travel. It was 1960 — nine years before people first set foot on the moon, and one year before the Russian Yuri Gagarin traveled into orbit. The book’s illustrations were so fascinating that little Tom was determined to make his dream come true one day. “It was my driving force to excel in school and study,” he says.

When he found out that a science degree was useful in this quest, he got his bachelor’s in basic science from the Air Force Academy. He wanted to earn his wings and become a pilot, but allergies disqualified him at first from flight training. That didn’t stop him. If not as a pilot, he might qualify to be a space crewmember as a scientist. He eventually passed the physical to earn his Air Force wings and flew as a bomber pilot during the Cold War, but he never lost his love of science. He returned to school to earn a doctorate in planetary science from the University of Arizona.

That enabled him to apply to NASA, but on his first try he wasn’t accepted. The impersonal NASA postcard had a small sentence at the bottom, saying “You may apply again at the next call for astronaut candidates.” What others might have understood as a formal way of softening the rejection, Jones took as a lifeline. He applied again, only to receive a negative answer this time as well. He still persisted, and on his third try at age 35, NASA finally relented.

However, before his dream of traveling into space could come true, he had to undergo years of preparation, especially in teamwork skills, which were even more necessary than scientific qualifications. “You can’t survive or get a lot of work done in space without being a team player; individual skills are not enough,” he says.

Becoming a good team member is an essential part of the NASA astronaut candidate training program. “The first thing you’re told is that this is a probation period of one and a half years. When you are properly trained, and if everything goes well, you might be sent as an astronaut into space. If you don’t make the grade, you might be offered a job in a different part of NASA, or you are asked to find a job elsewhere.”

It took a year of formal astronaut training, plus up to three more years of mission-specific training to ready a crew for a shuttle flight. International Space Station crews train for two and a half years before working a six-month tour in orbit.

“For a space mission, they send a new crew on specific exercises to build trust, not lecture-based activities, but ones that build experience in learning to work together,” Jones says. “For example, in one exercise you have to survive after parachuting from a failing aircraft, or they put you in the desert in the summer in Utah where you have to hike a dozen miles a day, or you go on arctic survival training up in Canada.”

Crewmembers do these exercises early on in their training so that each gains a sense of each other’s personalities. “It’s different than just meeting at work in an office, because there you don’t see how each person reacts under stress.”

When the team returns, an evaluation process takes place. “Supervisors review what they learned this week or what the crew could have done better. If someone doesn’t work well as a team member in the field, they might have to take a closer look at him. And if a person doesn’t fit as a member of the team, managers have to look for a replacement,” Jones says.

Trust is crucial for a mission, in which an astronaut’s life lies in the hands of others. Too much personal ambition can be an obstacle. “Your number one objective has to be the success of the team. Your individual desire has to be secondary. Some people can do that and some people can’t,” Jones observes. “People who are not able to subordinate their personal desires on one flight might not be assigned to another mission.”

Recalling how astronauts from many nations helped build the International Space Station, Jones noted that intercultural relationships could be a challenge in building a successful crew. He discovered, however, that some basic things are the same no matter the culture.

“I flew on an American space shuttle docking at a space station where two Russian cosmonauts were part of the crew. We didn’t have a lot of time before the flight to prepare together. But by knowing how to be good team members from previous missions, we were able to work together professionally and install the $1.4 billion U.S. science laboratory.”

Nobody could have done this on their own; astronauts and cosmonauts all contributed to the success. “In one instance, my Russian colleague suggested a very clever way to transfer to the shuttle the vital parts needed for our spacewalk the next day,” said Jones. “His quick thinking saved us an invaluable couple of hours and some vital reserve oxygen supplies.”

Despite apparent growing tensions between Russia and the U.S., Station work has not been affected. Jones thinks that space cooperation has in fact helped the nations to trust each other more — at least at the technical level.

Another important skill astronaut crewmembers must develop is how to reach a decision together (a skill also necessary in our daily lives on earth). It’s different from other professions where someone has to make decisions alone and instantly, like the pilot of a single-seat fighter plane. “It’s definitely a consensus process. Only the station commander makes the big decisions … but you have the chance to make your thoughts and wishes known.” And for the commander of a six-person station crew, sensitivity is required. “You can’t be arbitrary, you have to share the decision-making process — that makes for a successful leader.”

After his 11 years with NASA, his conclusion is that teamwork is the key to success in space. Among the fifty-plus crews who have lived aboard the station, Jones knows of only one flier who didn’t put the team first; his crewmates picked up his workload and completed the expedition, but that individual never was assigned again.

The sharp focus on teamwork in the space program also helped Jones in his personal life: “I definitely learned to listen better, to talk things over, and make decisions together, which no doubt strengthened my marriage.” He continues, “I’m a problem-solver by nature, but you have to listen to understand what someone’s problem really is.”

In space — where the lives of the crew are dependent on one another — and back on earth, this means that he tries to always be aware of what’s going on in the lives of colleagues, friends or family members. “I think of ways to have an outing together, a social gathering, a dinner together,” he says.

This approach could also help to build relationships between older and younger generations: “My personal impression is that younger people are more used to communicating digitally rather than face-to-face, so as a leader you have to make sure to communicate effectively and work on that personal connection.”

Jones is a lifelong Catholic, and on all his trips into space he took the Sunday scripture readings with him for inspiration and comfort. On one mission, with three Catholics aboard, he and his crewmates held a communion service in space.

Did his faith have an influence on his efforts to be a good team member? “Not in a conscious way,” he reflects. “It’s more about the way you live your life according to Christian principles: treat others as you like to be treated … After all, in space you trust that person with your life.”

He explains that choice in daily life with the example of meeting a person with whom you don’t get along very well. “You would have to try to understand where this person is coming from, why are they acting that way, maybe give them some extra allowance and space,” he says. He admits that once or twice in orbit he got inwardly angry at several of his colleagues, but that’s human nature; he didn’t allow a disagreement to prevent their working successfully together.

Eventually, being in space taught him that not only the team, but also the larger human community matters. “A fellow astronaut said it in a good way: ‘We’re all crew members on Earth; we’re not just passengers. We are all responsible for flying this spaceship of ours together.’”

Tom Jones left NASA in 2001 and now works as a space consultant, author, and speaker. He is a senior research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (see also

— Susanne Janssen


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