Spacewalking astronaut Steve Smith talks teamwork lessons in 'Virtual Astronaut' webcast Tuesday

NASA astronaut Steve Smith gives a thumbs-up signal during a spacewalk.
NASA astronaut Steve Smith gives a thumbs-up signal during a spacewalk. (Image credit: NASA)

Retired astronaut Steve Smith has faced down some of the more complicated spacewalks in NASA history. He helped repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope not once, but twice. And during his last spaceflight, he helped install a truss that forms the framework of today's International Space Station.

Smith will talk about spacewalking, being an astronaut and excelling at teamwork as part of the Virtual Astronaut lecture series on Tuesday (Oct. 6) at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) and you can purchase tickets for $20 here. The theme of his talk will be giving advice for mentoring and coaching based on his four spaceflights, during shuttle missions STS-68, STS-82, STS-103 and STS-110 between 1994 and 2002. Smith's talk, by coincidence, comes amid World Space Week 2020, an unrelated event that celebrates the role space exploration and technology plays in daily life.

Spacewalkers typically receive a lot of press due to the glamor of wearing spacesuits, the technical excellence the astronauts must achieve, and the inherent danger in going out into the vacuum of space with only a few layers of protection. Today's astronauts spend dozens of hours training for spacewalking in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), a large pool complex with a scale model of much of the space station submerged inside it, at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Related: In pictures: The most memorable spacewalks in history

Smith, however, began his career on what he calls "the other side of the business," he told Before flying as an astronaut, he worked in NASA's Mission Control. This group of talented technicians helps keep the space station organized and running, monitoring systems for problems and making sure the astronauts know where all the equipment and stowed items are located. Typically, however, only the flight director of a particular shift along with the CapCom — an astronaut who communicates with the crew in space — receive press attention, so Smith worked in the shadows for years.

But Smith said there are valuable lessons in teamwork that can be learned from his time in Mission Control and his time supporting dozens of astronauts who had their own day in the media's eye, while he toiled mostly unrecognized supporting them.

Spaceflight and spacewalking require you to "meticulously prepare," he said. "It's so complicated. The time is so limited, and there's so much money involved." As such, the team — both astronauts and support teams on Earth — must work to be humble, nimble and agile to changing circumstances in space and on the ground.

Smith said he worked to stay focused during his five spacewalks servicing Hubble across two missions, because the view alone could be very distracting. "It's super-easy to be flying over the Atlantic, see the Namibian coast coming up and say, 'Wow,'" he said. "But if you're working on something that's worth $6 billion and involves the careers of many people … you need to keep the big picture in mind to keep yourself safe and protect people's careers and not bring embarrassment to the team."

Smith said while the spacewalkers got the lion's share of attention, he knew there were hundreds of people involved in the mission who would likely never be recognized. And the folks coaching him from the ground on how to fix Hubble were smarter than he was, he said. "It's about being a good teammate, being humble and being open-minded to suggestions."

Tending Hubble and building the space station both required a lot of collaboration across countries, across cultures and across genders, Smith said. It was through the diverse input from these different groups — and through the historical perspectives of different international space agencies — that NASA and its partners were able to bring success during his missions. 

Smith also pointed to the ability of NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) to continue working together on the space station program for a generation as its chief partners, even amid periodic saber-rattling from politicians on the ground.

For example, in 2014, Russia's then-deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who now leads Roscosmos, told NASA it should send its astronauts to space by trampoline when he was frustrated with American economic sanctions related to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. The remark was a cutting reminder that NASA relied on Russian Soyuz spaceships to send spaceflyers aloft for the decade between the end of the NASA space shuttle program in 2011 and the beginning of the U.S. commercial crew program this year.

Speaking more generally of U.S. and Russian relations, Smith said he was impressed the two countries "kept working together without conflict." Earlier this year, he pointed out, a Norwegian parliamentarian nominated the space station for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. The winner will be announced on Friday, Oct. 9. 

"There's nothing really like it," Smith said of the space station. It prepares agencies for longer-duration missions in space such as missions to Mars, for example. It is a zero-gravity laboratory working throughout the year for thousands of researchers on Earth. It pioneers technologies such as water reclamation that could be used in drought-stricken areas on Earth.

"It's a stepping stone to greater things, and those of us in the exploration business have very long views of where we're headed in technology and space," Smith said.

Smith will deliver his talk in support of the non-profit Positive Coaching Alliance, which was developed by Jim Thompson at Stanford University's business school. "He saw the need to develop an organization to teach parents how to be coaches," said Smith, who has two children. 

"The number of coaches needed are gigantic, and most of us do it without any experience," he said. "Unfortunately, sometimes when we have parents coaching, the messaging they give students would not potentially be best for the child's overall development."

Smith said an example of this thinking would be "win at all costs," which he said would not have served him well in life. It took him decades of work and several rejections to become an astronaut, and even if he hadn't succeeded, he was always looking to work in a place that prized teamwork over individual achievement.

The collective emphasis means that Smith has made peace with even the most strict instructors of the space program, who usually built training simulations to fail so that the crew could learn how to deal with adverse circumstances in space.

"They are so good at their job that we find that space is what they have taught us," he said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: