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Astronauts learn togetherness skills by roughing it
LANDER, Wyo. -- NASA astronauts are trained to cope with the isolation of a cramped space shuttle, the anxiety of takeoff and the stress of tinkering with equipment while hurtling through space.
But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration also is looking at problems that can grow out of personality quirks, such as the way a colleague organizes personal gear in space.
Wearing backpacks instead of space suits, a group of astronauts recently spent nine days hiking the Wind River Mountains as part of a 2-year-old program that trains space explorers how to stay on each other's good sides.
Led by guides from the Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School, the astronauts shared cramped tents, showered with washcloths and drank iodine-purified creek water. Their goal was to learn the tenets of leadership, cooperation and self-care, and how to recognize and respect personality differences.
For NASA, such skills are important in everything from a successful launch to a productive research mission, said Monika Schultz, NASA project manager for expeditionary training.
The skills grow increasingly important as space flights become longer, thanks to the International Space Station, and crews represent a cross-section of cultures.
"A good analogy is relatives that come to stay for a few weeks to a month. Over time, the little things that didn't bug you before now become more apparent," Schultz said.
'A very tight crew'
The trip marked the first time that an entire crew of shuttle astronauts took the course. The Russian space program routinely sends its space station crews for wilderness training in Siberia in advance of their mission.
The seven-person crew for the next NASA shuttle flight is expected to launch a 16-day research mission on the space shuttle Columbia next summer.
Aerospace engineer Kalpana Chawla, an American who grew up in India, said she feels lucky to be with "a very tight crew." Judging from the wilderness trip, personality conflicts among the crew are likely to be minimal, she said.
But Chawla said she became aware that some of her colleagues are organization-minded, like herself. At one point, one of the astronauts organized backpacking items, then another came in and reorganized them.
"We were joking that this is good we're doing this now," she said.
Space shuttle pilot Rick Husband, who grew up in Amarillo, Texas, will be the commander of next summer's shuttle crew. On his first mission, in 1999, he piloted Discovery during the first shuttle docking at the International Space Station.
On the wilderness adventure, the group split into two teams -- Husband's crew and another group of six astronauts who are awaiting mission assignments.
The experience was far from being as stressful as a space mission, but it did pose challenges. Both teams took separate 35-mile routes across the granite and through the forest of the Wind River Mountains.
Husband said the similarities between the Wyoming wilderness and space go beyond seclusion and beautiful views.
"You almost think, 'Wow, that almost went by in a blink of an eye,'" he said.