“Houston, We Have a Connection”: The Importance of Training

A roaring noise rumbles overhead. Suddenly a jet screams through the sky, followed right behind by another one! This is a common sight and sound in my area of Houston—it is the excitement of astronauts in flight training with T-38 Talons. 

T38 Talons used for astronaut training

T38 Talons used in astronaut flight training on display outside Space Center Houston. Photo: K. Newmyer

You may not exactly be training your students using high-powered aircraft, but teachers everywhere are beginning the school year by establishing procedures and expectations.  Mushers are out on the trails, working with their canine athletes preparing to race the Iditarod.

To get a better idea of what astronauts experience during training and if it’s similar to training for the Iditarod, I spoke with astronaut Megan McArthur. McArthur served on STS-125, the final mission to service the Hubble Telescope; she served as Crew-2 Pilot aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule; and she spent 200 days in space in 2021 conducting science aboard the International Space Station.

McArthur told me that astronauts first spend time getting to know one another and the environments they will be working in. They visit and learn about all the different NASA facilities. When mushers go out for fall training, they are also guiding their dog teams to understand the environment and trails.  Mushers improve their own physical fitness as astronauts do. They study the strengths of their team. 

DeeDee Jonrowe mushes her dog team during a spring training run at dawn with Denali and the Alaska Range in the background. Denali State Park. South central Alaska.

Model and Property Released.

One of the most important aspects of training in both the wilderness and in space is an emphasis on safety.  Mushers must focus on the health of their dogs to prevent injury, as well as keep equipment in safe condition.  When describing the long training hours wearing space suits in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (which simulates zero-gravity), McArthur emphasized, “great attention to detail and safety must be maintained throughout the day.”  As educators, we also practice the mantra of Safety First in our classrooms. 

Another way that astronaut training is similar to musher training is the importance of developing team cohesion. Mushers themselves perform many vital duties in the care of their teams.  A sled dog team relies on great communication between the musher and lead dogs, so building relationships is critical. The entire mushing team must be able to fix problems in the moment. McArthur’s mission training included exercises in which “you use the skills of every team member (including those on the ground) to solve problems and complete the mission.” Teachers can be inspired to do the intentional work of building a mission- or race-ready team by having students problem-solve and work together.

Teachers at the Iditarod Summer Conference work together to get a canine athlete ready for training. Photo: Terrie Hanke

What is the outcome of all this intense training? Mushers say that being out in the wilderness with their dogs is the best reward. Brent Sass, one of this year’s Iditarod competitors and 2022 Iditarod champion, emphasizes this point repeatedly. McArthur concurs. “I think the reward to do well in training is the spaceflight at the end!” Teachers would also agree—the reward for accomplishing training goals is seeing your team succeed at what they were born to do. 

Share your favorite stories about training students to succeed in your classroom.  Email me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.edu.