In Space, Teamwork is The Right Stuff

December 19, 1993|By ANN LoLORDO

The Right Stuff?

Sure, the four spacewalkers from Endeavour had it. In performing the most complex tasks humans have ever attempted in space, they needed the aplomb of Fred Astaire, the patience of Job, the tenacity of Churchill, and perhaps most importantly, the teamwork of Cal Ripken.

They had it all and then some, say psychologists and NASA officials familiar with the intricacies of space work and the personalities needed to perform it.

How else could they have pulled off The Big Fix with nary a harsh word or a raised voice among them? Two teams of two astronauts, working on alternate days in a record five spacewalks, logged 35 nail-biting hours and 28 minutes to outfit NASA's blurry-eyed telescope with new corrective optics and replacement parts to ensure its 15-year life span.

Someone like Bill Clinton would never have been chosen for the job, said psychologist Robert Hogan, a professor at the University of Tulsa and a personality specialist.

"Anyone who needs to be the center of attention would be a disaster," said Dr. Hogan, the chairman of the psychology department at the University of Tulsa and a former professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "It wasn't a bunch of Gary Coopers or Clint Eastwoods out there. It was a marvelous example of a highly skilled team performance, and people need to pay attention to it."

The four astronauts performed on the world's stage -- their hours-long spacewalks were broadcast live on C-SPAN and replayed around the globe. But the chest pounding was a collective one. Each was the other's coach and cheerleader. Like a shadow in a 250-pound spacesuit, one followed the other's every move with running commentary.

"Before fixing anything," astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman said before the flight, "we are constantly going to be looking over each other's shoulders . . . in case we may forget something. We're going to be documenting everything we're doing."

He kept to his word. Follow this exchange, as Mr. Hoffman's partner, Payload Commander F. Story Musgrave, struggled to unscrew several bolts from an electronics unit the pair was replacing during the fifth and final spacewalk.

"We have to be really careful how many turns," Dr. Musgrave said aloud, referring to the number of rotations necessary to unscrew the bolt.

"Absolutely," replied Mr. Hoffman. "It's OK."

"It's in good shape," Dr. Musgrave said.

"Great technique," added Astronaut Tom Akers, who monitored the spacewalk from inside Endeavour.

"Very nice," remarked Mr. Hoffman.

During the spacewalks, members of the crew routinely offered assistance, assurance, accolades from their posts inside the orbiter.

Perhaps the only hint of exasperation came as Dr. Musgrave struggled to replace an electronics unit, a component held in place by a dozen tiny screws. The job took twice as long as mission planners expected, and it required a dexterity the astronaut was hard pressed to exhibit with his bulky space-gloved hands.

As Dr. Musgrave worked, Mr. Hoffman prefaced his every move with what lay ahead.

"I can see, too, Jeff," Dr. Musgrave interjected with the slightest edge in his voice.

Even so, that interplay -- the verbal shadowing, one checking the other's work -- is part of the follow-the-leader mentality of such work.

"We look for the folks who are team players and can be team players," said Capt. Hoot Gibson, a Navy fighter pilot and chief of NASA's astronaut office.

During the selection of the very first shuttle crew, Captain Gibson looked at the group of 35 -- men and women,

African-Americans and astronauts of Asian descent among them and tried to determine what characteristic they shared.

"But I just couldn't put my finger on it," said Captain Gibson, an astronaut who has commanded three shuttle flights. "After about one to two years, I said, 'Bingo I've got it.' They all are generally easy to work with. They were all the sort of people that you would say, 'Gee, he's a nice guy.' We didn't have the sort of people who would bang on the table and say, 'There's only one way to to do it and it's my way.' "

While the Hubble telescope repair mission was unprecedented, it started in much the same way other shuttle missions have -- selecting a crew that fit its purpose. In the end, the Hubble astronauts would be veterans with not a novice spacewalker among them. They prepared for the mission for 18 months and underwent more training than any other previous crew had gone through.

Dr. Roy Marsh, a NASA psychiatrist who helps screen astronaut applicants, described the Endeavour crew as "very bright, extremely motivated" veterans with "oodles of practice" -- characteristics that contributed to the mission's success.

"What you have on these elite teams are people on the one hand who are very interchangeable, so everybody on the team could, if necessary, assume a leadership role," said Dr. James P. McGee II, director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Towson.

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