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What Space Camp Taught Me About Diversity

July 10, 2018

 

It was the summer heat of Alabama that had me sweating, but the nerves were packed up tight on an early June morning.  I had woken up to a slightly aching back, but was ready to get going for the morning's activities.  We had to train on two missions that day: one to low earth orbit and another as futuristic astronauts positioned on Mars in the mid 2040s.

 

Between all the activities, we had time to chat, build rockets, and talk about our lives.  One woman, a mom with kids, had been a fellow space fan her entire life.  Eventhough she wasn't an engineer, she loved the shuttle program and all its moorings.  One young woman who was a fellow environmental scientist on the Mars base revealed to me that she studied Astrophysics in college.  She asked about my time volunteering at a planetarium, which eventually made the rounds to the entire group as I was asked a few times about it.  And also to outside of the group to the facilitators.  

 

During this whole time, I was expecting that I would be doubted upon.  That unless I held a prestigious degree from a university, I wasn't really a fan of space, a lover of all things universe-related, and an avid nerd of the cosmos.  Nay, many people shared this love, and from all walks of life.  Surprisingly, the ones that fit my imagination were the quietest of the bunch, taking in the ideas and workshop plans of us all.

 

So, what did I learn during all this endeavor?  I learned that people aren't always what we think they will be.  That scientist and enthusiasts can sometimes be very different than what we expect.  I felt I was the least qualified to be part of a team, and leading a team of fellow scientists on whatever missions may be.  I was wrong.  In fact, I was more than qualified.  I had to reign myself back some to make sure we were all on the same page.

 

During each mission, we were briefed anywhere between one to two hours.  We were told what our flight plan entailed, and how it was pretty much a dead ringer for the real ones used by mission control to this day.  We learned our jobs, as well as the jobs of everyone else.  Why? Because if we needed to talk to the shuttle, astronauts performing an extravehicular activity (EVA), or the current residents of the International Space Station (ISS), we needed to know who we could talk to to relay these messages.  We couldn't just flip and switch and talk to them ourselves.  Everything was done through a series of headsets.  And although the first session was relatively easy, they got progressively harder and more difficult when anomalies were thrown in.

 

If you ever want to know how well you work with a bunch of strangers, throw some seriously WTF type of scenarios their way.  For instance in one simulation, our flight commander was landing after what we would call an almost perfectly executed mission, replete with an EVA that I commanded from my base at mission control in conjunction with two colleagues who performed what's known as a MISSE, Materials International Space Station Experiment, where they affixed certain panels of materials to be exposed to the perils of space to test for endurance and future use within the environment's cold vacuum and high radiation.  Upon landing, the space shuttle took what can only be described as a lawn dart nosedive into the sea.  We were perplexed.  It happened again after our "space ghost" (the person throwing the said anomalies and controlling the timeline) reset us and we tried again from entering earth's atmosphere.  Again, another nosedive.  We heard no communication at all from the shuttle, as the CAPCOM (short for Capsule or Shuttle Communicator), was desperately trying to figure out the issue.  Our hearts sank and we all felt like failed in some way.

 

Instead of the finger-pointing that would normally pursue this type of event, we immediately asked the commander what happened.  She informed us that the screens had gone completely red.  None of the information was showing and her flight screens had all gone haywire.  She couldn't seen anything, and the whole crew was flying blind with the steering mechanisms not responding at all.  She asked if we saw anything on mission control screens.  We did not.  Just their frantic faces trying to push every button imaginable to stop the downfall.

 

We learned that there was something happening on the shuttle's end that we could not see.  And for that, we were much more enlightened.  We imagined ourselves in her shoes, trying to save her crew, and find out the fastest way possible to prevent epic tragedy.  We tried to push ourselves out of our own limelight to see what others might have felt, and what more we could do to be supportive.

 

It was that day, and the subsequent activities that followed, that taught me how to communicate with strangers more effectively.  As we were asked to do a team-building ropes course exercise called "spaghetti and meatballs", we learned what it meant to work together as a team to get something done, and even invented our own call signals (shouting "meatball" to indicate a coming brick of wood being transpired down our pipeline, yelling "step" to indicate that the first person needing to make a step forward - which was me, by the way - to shift the entire group was about to occur) made our cooperation that much more significant.  We worked efficiently, communicating when possible, and agreeing on some short demands that seemed to make sense to us at the time.  

 

In all, we evaluated that sometimes the shortest person has the best balance and fits right for the task.  The strongest person physically may need to both lead and follow, and sometimes (to our chagrine) be blindfolded and have to stay in the middle to rely on their colleagues to guide them, and eventhough an idea is overlooked, sometimes a unique one works just as well.  

 

Of all groups, we were repeatedly told we were the most quiet.  We often looked at each other, puzzled, as we didn't seem to have a standout in the group that seemed to be a dissenter at all.  We worked fast, and concentrated on trying to get the task ahead of us accomplished.  I was the most proud of our little offset team that built a highly effective shield against a blowtorch where we literally had inches of space between it and the egg on either side.  Our team was the only one who had absolutely no scorching, heat transfer, or cooking whatsoever.  The egg itself was gleaming white, and the inside completely raw.  We couldn't believe it, especially after viewing the others that went ahead of us.

 

In the end, we won Best Mission as an entire team at our graduation ceremony.  I know I was shocked as well as many others, since our shuttle nosedived.  But it wasn't about the end result.  We were graded on professionalism, ability to complete tasks in a timely manner, and overall performance. 

 

Awards aside, I would work with this team any day on any other project.  I told myself this as I looked down our table during our last breakfast together earlier before the ceremonies.  We always kept track of each other, and knew roughly where each of us was when headcount happened.  Everyone participated, and everyone uplifted everyone else.  We were all grown-ups getting a chance to live out our childhood dreams.  And for that, we became a much better, unified team.

 

Go Team Mariner, Week 40, Summer of 2018!

 

{Sidenote: We all came from different regions of the country, and had different professions (both presently and in our previous lives).  I strongly believe that our variances were what made us stronger.  Few of us came with friends, and we all stuck together.}

 

 

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