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The view from above: Stellar insights into teamwork, diversity and achieving your dreams

May 19, 2020
Cady in space

Cady Coleman, a retired NASA astronaut and Air Force colonel, discusses the lessons she learned from outer space, including the importance of teamwork, celebrating different perspectives and working toward a finite goal. 

Sometimes, it takes leaving your world to better understand and appreciate the people you live and work alongside — just ask Cady Coleman. A retired NASA astronaut and colonel of the United States Air Force, Cady has spent more than 170 days in outer space during the course of three missions, including two on the Space Shuttle and a third as part of Expedition 27 on the International Space Station (ISS), where she lived for more than five months.

As the first featured keynote speaker at the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience, Cady gave a presentation on “Innovation in Isolation: An Astronaut’s Guide to Mental Strength, Creativity and Connectivity.” In both her lecture and her subsequent discussion with Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, Cady shared pictures and videos of her time in space — as well as some of the lessons she has learned, both on Earth and beyond.

Gaining new perspectives on people 220 miles from Earth

Cady didn’t always dream of being an astronaut. Despite the fact that her father was a deep-sea diver, she didn’t start thinking of herself as a potential explorer until she attended a campus lecture given by astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

“You see somebody that you can relate to, and I just thought, ‘Wow, maybe I could try to do that,’” said Cady.

After graduating from MIT, Cady was commissioned as a graduate of the Air Force ROTC and entered active duty on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as a research chemist. During this time, she participated in the NASA Long Duration Exposure Facility experiment, where she set records in endurance and tolerance that still stand today.  

Unfortunately, not everyone recognized Cady’s potential as quickly as she herself did, but she was able to continue striving toward her goals thanks to her conviction that she deserved a seat at the table.

“I knew that I brought things to that team that others didn't,” said Cady. “And I cheerfully showed up to meetings that I wasn't invited to — not because people said, ‘Oh, we didn't like her’ or anything else; it was just that they looked at me and couldn't imagine that I should be part of that team. But I knew. And when it's something as important as exploring space, it gives you that extra courage to just say, ‘I know. I am showing up.’”

Cady’s persistence paid off: She was selected to be part of the NASA Astronaut Corps in 1992, and in 1995, she joined the crew of a scientific Space Shuttle mission that logged more than 15 days in space, orbiting the Earth 256 times and traveling more than 6 million miles. She experienced her second space flight in 1999 as a mission specialist in charge of deploying the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which conducts comprehensive studies of the universe and phenomena such as black holes. And in 2010, she became part of the mission that allowed her to spend 159 days on the ISS.

Throughout these missions, Cady began recognizing the beauty of diversity and differences in others. Among the most profound aspects from her time on the ISS was gaining a new perspective on the distance — or lack thereof — between people by seeing the Earth from above.  

“You just realize that everything is closer than you thought — and so is everyone,” she said. “We’d go around the Earth 16 times a day, and the Earth is turning, so we're always seeing a different slice of it. It becomes so clear that everything is connected — and, actually, everyone could be connected if they just knew that we're all there is.”

Teamwork makes the dream work, even in space

Recognizing the importance of other perspectives was pivotal to forming bonds and building a successful team on the ISS, where Cady lived and worked among astronauts from Italy, Russia and the United States.

“Most of the lessons I learned were about people, about being a crew,” she said. “I had to learn to ask different questions, and I had to learn to listen. You only know this little slice of (your colleagues’) life; you don't know the rest of it. And one of the ways to really make a group (work) is to find out more about the rest of them — really, the rest of their life.”

In space and on Earth, Cady noted, the differences among members of a team only make that team stronger, especially when we learn to appreciate other people’s unique offerings. 

“Every one of us is different,” she said. “Find some way to recognize what people bring (to the table). Make them tell stories about themselves in a group. Get to know each other a little bit. Just knowing a little bit more about somebody, I think, can help you realize that they bring other things.”

The ability to collaborate with different people has made Cady a successful leader. She posits that exhibiting true concern for and attention to others is one of the most basic and important tenets of leadership and teambuilding.

“Somebody asked me the other day how I basically got people to trust me as a leader, and it made me realize: It's (that) I ask people about themselves,” said Cady. “I do that because I want them to know that I see them and I know that they are more of a person than just the part that comes to work.”

Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Once trust and appreciation have been built among team members, the next most important step, said Cady, is focusing on the mission at hand. This concept of taking on a mission and striving to meet a goal is one that Cady has found herself thinking a lot about in the midst of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. If anyone knows about social distancing and experiencing long stretches of isolation, it’s astronauts like Cady, who asserts that identifying and focusing on a mission is key to getting through difficult times.

“We have this advantage as space explorers that we're part of the mission,” she noted. “It's really clear to you that you've got a job to do, so it's easy to think, ‘It's important for me to be ready, and all these actions, they're important.’ But I think, with COVID-19, the mission can be less tangible. The fact that you stay in your house with your family and stay safe doesn't feel like this step forward. And yet it is. It's a step toward the mission. And I think what can help people is just (to) give it a name. This is the mission: staying safe.”

In Cady’s mind, there are some aspects of the COVID-19 lockdown that are actually harder to deal with than being in space — especially the unknowns.

“The hardest thing that we don't actually have to wrestle with much in space is that we know, eventually, we're coming home,” she pointed out. “I was up there for six months, and the mission was extended by two weeks, which I was incredibly thrilled about, but it's still finite, whereas, with COVID-19, there's a lot of uncertainties — about finances, about dreams, about what you're going to be able to do next. And owning that uncertainty, I think, is really helpful — realizing that it's hard and just acknowledge you're working through hard things.”

Cady’s unique perspective on life has helped her see a silver lining in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: That, despite being physically distant from each other, people are coming together to help their neighbors and make important changes.

“I see a lot of positive happening,” she said. “I see this on the internet, I see it in the news — different people coming together, seeing something that they can do together and doing it. It's so hopeful.”

Of all the things Cady learned as an astronaut, her new perspective on humanity and the planet we live on may have been the most meaningful.

“I used to think that space was someplace different — like, ‘I'm on Earth, I'm going to go to space’ — but actually arriving up there, it just made me realize that Earth and the place that we live is just bigger than we thought,” she said. “And yet, it's home. And I think, for all of us, getting to look at what is home — home to our ancestors, home to our families — is what is the most special thing to look at as we go around the Earth.”

The magic of space exploration has clearly not lost its sparkle for Cady, whose wonder for the world and what lies beyond is uncapped — but whose unique experience away from Earth has only helped her appreciate her fellow man all the more.  

“It's like leading the life of Peter Pan, and everything is different, and everything is a discovery,” she said. “But we're still human. We each have our own way of bringing that experience back home.”


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