As part of a Masters of Engineering program at Texas A&M, I recently got to hear a presentation by NASA Flight Analogs Program Manager, Lisa Spence. Anyone from NASA is like a rock star to me, and her project is amazing!
Spence works with teams of four civilians to enact 45-day simulated space missions in a model spacecraft. This “ship” is the size of a Winnebago but has only one small window and no shower. The Space Winnebago doesn’t actually leave the ground, and they don’t try to recreate zero gravity, but she said her experiments study the most complex systems in any manned space mission: the men and women.
So… were there countertops in the Space Winnebago?
Manufacturing countertops may not be rocket science, but NASA flight crews face the same management challenges as any stone fabricator: goal definition, communication, conflict management, decision-making, assigning roles and leadership. But NASA has a R&D budget to address their management issues! Why? In extreme environments, leadership and teamwork can easily erode and jeopardize an entire mission. And the stakes are high when you’re 30 million miles from Earth.
But the stakes are high when you’re tasked with moving a 900-pound slab of granite, too. Just as they’re high when you’re operating the industrial saws found in most shops today. The stakes are high too when you’re making decisions that will impact the people you employ – people with families or dreams of their own.
What can a stone fabricator learn from a NASA flight simulation?
The Flight Analog missions are designed to recreate the conditions of isolation and confinement experienced by astronauts in space. Once the crews enter the Space Winnebago, they remain cut off from their families, media, the Internet – just as they would if they were really in space. The crews work 16-hour shifts, 6 days per week, with realistic tasks and time-lines that vary from exceptionally exciting to morbidly mundane.
Spence and her team found that as the stress of these extreme conditions increases, pro-social behaviors decrease. What does that mean? To illustrate, Spence asked us:
Which of these two would you want on your team?
Getting the right people on your team is critical. NASA has no trouble finding people who are smart enough to do the work, but other qualities (sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence) proved equally important. Investing the time and resources needed to get well-rounded people on your team is indeed mission critical.
What happens to teams in extreme conditions?
While the crew is living and working aboard the Space Winnebago, researchers observe crew behavior from outside. They’ve found a few common pitfalls:
- Interpersonal conflict
- Failure to work together toward a goal
- Over reliance on the leader
- Compliance rather than evaluation
What can leaders do to support crews in extreme conditions?
Researchers also identified some tactics that help crews overcome these pitfalls. These suggestions include:
- Model the behavior you expect from others
- Learn to recognize how individuals respond to stress & provide support
- Focus on the big picture & remind people how they’re helping achieve a shared goal
- Set intermediary goals & celebrate small wins
- Maintain a climate of trust through collaboration & cooperation
- Ask for input, ideas and potential solutions when problems arise
- Let the experts in different areas take the lead
- Pitch in
Want to learn more?
I had to keep cutting this post to keep it short, but I wanted to share more details! Please contact me if you have questions or just want to hear more.
Or maybe you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut? Lisa Spence said she’s always looking for the next Space Winnebago crew! Check out the their website to learn more!