Simply Perform

Lessons From How NASA Selects Astronauts 🚀

October 7, 2018

My least preferred mode of transport is flying.  Not out of a fear of likely death if anything goes wrong but because of the confined space in a tin.  Being 6ft 2, it’s not up my street.

With that, I’m always fascinated by how NASA psychologically prepare their astronauts for long-duration missions.  What do they look for in candidates? What makes an astronaut excellent at what they do? How does NASA develop collaboration amongst the small team in the shuttle as well as those on the ground?

And with NASA making plans to send four people to Mars in a tin container the size of a “mid-sized RV”, on a mission that will last 2 to 3 years and consist of a delay in communication with planet Earth of up to 45 minutes – that takes some character to be able to cope and perform in such an extreme environment!

So what can we learn from NASA about the composition of their teams and the character of the individuals that make these?

In a 2011 interview with Wired.com, clinical psychologist Douglas Vakoch said:

Historically someone with the “right stuff” was a tough, individualistic person who could explore an unknown frontier with great courage and certainty.

These characteristics are still required of astronauts in a lot of ways. Even now, we can’t take for granted that another spacecraft launch is going to be problem-free. There still needs to be this sense of courage, of focus. But I think the “right stuff” has broadened.

Now, you not only need to be a self-sufficient individual, you need to be able to work with astronauts from other cultures on the International Space Station. People from the same culture often take for granted a certain way of doing things, but another culture will probably have a different way of doing it.

If you’re an American astronaut, very often you’ll be working with people who don’t put as high an emphasis on individualism as the United States does. So, beyond the need for autonomy and independence, there is a greater need for interpersonal and intercultural sensitivity among astronauts.

Vakoch alludes to the shift from a solely logical or task focused approach to one that is also sensitive to the cultural values and beliefs of others.  This isn’t an either/or shift. Vakoch is describing a both/and ability.  That is, astronauts who are able to adopt both task focused and people focused behavioural styles dependent on the ever changing context.

This has been further supported more recently by Landon et al. (2018) who describe the personality profile of many astronauts as being varied, but crucially no astronaut holding extreme highs or lows across the attributes they seek.  Instead, it appears they seek balance in the team’s composition.

From these small insights into a fascinating area of human performance, there are two primary lessons about teams that strike me:

  1. Adaptability: congruent with recent research, the ability for teams to adapt to the ever changing conditions they’re faced with is crucial to problem-solving, moving forwards and growth.  
  2. Balance: elite teams like astronauts and sport teams are not filled with just “one type of person”.  They consist of a range of team players, each with their own strengths but fundamentally underpinned by a willingness to adapt when the time is right.

So, which of these two principles could your team improve on?

At Simply Perform, we deliver Spotlight profiling along with tailored coaching workshops for teams in the business and sports worlds.  Spotlight is a personality profiling tool, designed with performance in mind and highlights all team players’ behavioural styles and mindsets.  

Click here to find out more about how Spotlight profiling can help you and your team.

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