Business Leadership Lessons from Space.

What can business leaders learn about teamwork and leadership from astronauts? In recent years, I’ve spent a great deal of time working with and studying the best teams in the world at work. Some teams operate in extreme conditions and face incredible demands. Faced with these challenges, some teams have no choice but to become world class.

Space is perhaps the most hostile environment that we know. Astronauts operating in the International Space Station (ISS), 250 miles above the Earth, are acutely aware just how vulnerable they are. This is exacerbated during EVAs (Space walks), where things can go from calm and controlled to life threatening in moments.

On the 11th December 2013 an emergency warning flashes on the monitors at Mission Control in Houston. One of the two cooling units on the International Space Station (ISS) has failed. Immediately, Scott Stover (who analyses the next worst failure) looks at the potential consequences. Mission Control decides to attempt to reboot the cooling units automatically from Houston and also manually, but both attempts fail.

NASA knows that the primary responsibility is to keep people alive, so all non-essential operations on the ISS are shut down. Nevertheless, they are just one step away from evacuating the space station.

Aboard the ISS, the astronauts prepare the space suits for an emergency EVA (space-walk) to repair the cooling unit. Interestingly, just five months earlier, on the previous space-walk, one of the helmets filled with water and almost drowned ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Luca Palmitano. Although the suits have been modified, they have not been tested in space since.

NASA senior management held a crisis meeting to find a solution. Team Four were tasked with planning the space walk. This involves full underwater simulation, in space suits, on a full sized replica section of the ISS, held in the world’s largest indoor swimming pool (the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston) on 17th December. Data from the simulation was then processed and sent to the astronauts on the ISS. Hundreds of people are involved in preparing an EVA that will be executed by just two astronauts. 

A NASA Flight Director said, “Five days later, not only have we come up with a solution, but we’ve rehearsed it in the water, rehearsed it in the high fidelity mock up and walked the crew [on the ISS] through it a few times”.

During the mission, all of the communication to and from the astronauts is conducted by one person, known as the CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator). This ensures that all of the instructions and feedback are managed, streamlined and effective. This simple process ensures that there are not too many voices and that communication is ‘clean’. Through CAPCOM, problems are relayed from the astronaut to the team in Houston, solutions are found and passed back to the astronauts.

As Mike Massimino, NASA Astronaut and Mission Specialist says, “You’re never alone up there”

Missions such as these highlight the incredible levels of teamwork that are required to fix a cooling unit on an object travelling 17,500 km/h, in a vacuum, in micro-gravity, 250 miles above the surface of the Earth.


How does this apply to business leadership and teamwork?

Clearly, astronauts are not just in the space business, they are also in the mental toughness business and the teamwork business. As well as inspiration, these insights also help us to see how great teams work, and allow us to understand how we can develop better teamwork. NASA understands human performance psychology, and how to make teams effective. Within NASA, each team has a specific role, and everyone know how they contribute to the overall mission. Everyone knows their “Two Lengths of the Pool”. Learning and information from one team in the Neutral Buoyance Lab is analysed by other teams, and ultimately communicated to astronauts on the ISS. There are very clear lines of communication, sometimes with just one or two people (such as the CAPCOM) involved at the sharp end. Insights such as these can help us to develop better leadership and better performance in our teams.    


For more information on world class leadership and teamwork, join us for “Habits of World Class Teams”. We’ll discover the six common habits of world class teams across a vast range of disciplines, from Michelin star kitchens to Formula One pit crews and The Red Arrows.

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