Preparing for the Next Global Crisis

We are now six months into the Covid-19 pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is unfortunately still prevalent and continues to inflict social and economic turmoil throughout our world. Rarely has an unseen threat created such havoc.

The swiftness, scale and severity of the outbreak took us all by surprise. Initial responses of some jurisdictions were reactive, inadequate and tentative. Since I am an astronaut who spent much of my career preparing for unexpected crises in space, I reflected on our response to the pandemic in its early weeks. I wondered if there are lessons learned from spaceflight that could be applicable to future global crises. In particular, I see intersections between the training of astronauts for flight and the preparation of response teams for crises on Earth.

Astronauts are trained to take bold and rapid action when faced with unexpected problems. This is because missions are complex and difficult undertakings. Anomalies in the flight plan and failures in spacecraft systems are likely to occur during the course of every flight. Furthermore, the risk of injury or death is ever-present. When anomalies happen, the worth and reputation of an astronaut is determined by their response to these unexpected events.

Let me explain how astronauts are trained. Preflight training is thorough – a bit like drinking from a fire hose. We learn to deal with a broad spectrum of malfunctions like engine failures and power losses, and contingency situations such as onboard fires and medical emergencies. We practice repeatedly and continually. It’s not enough to train until we get it right; we need to train until we can’t get it wrong. Once in space, we will often have only one chance to perform a task correctly.

Emergency egress training

The cornerstone of our training program is simulators. Simulators are sophisticated training facilities that replicate the sights, sounds, motions, controls and data stream of our spacecraft. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Our highest fidelity simulators even replicate some features of the space environment.

International Space Station simulations (referred to as “sims” in astronaut lingo) develop the operational skills required by crew members to perform competently in space.

During some of our training sessions, the crew will work with the entire flight control team to solve a series of malfunctions and contingencies. Scripts for these day-long sessions are developed by our instructors with the same creative genius and zeal that Hollywood writers devote to their movie screenplays – striving for realism as well as training value. A well-written script will probe the crew and flight controllers’ range of skills.

From my training, I have learned that no spacecraft system operates independently. Each system is connected to and interacts with several others, meaning that a small problem can propagate outward and have consequences throughout the vehicle. The failure of a flow control valve in an external pump, for instance, could result in the loss of cooling to half of the hardware on the outside of the International Space Station. The crew and ground team would respond by re-routing the Station’s electrical power. Since only high priority power loads can now be sustained, research activities inside the Station would need to be curtailed and the launch of the next cargo ship would need to be postponed. Space walks would need to be planned and scheduled to replace the pump. All of this happens because a single valve failed.

My experience in simulators has also instilled an operational mindset. As I launch skyward on a rocket, I have little time to enjoy the ride. I am constantly scanning the cockpit displays and anticipating the next possible failure. I consider the impact of the potential failure and what my immediate reaction should be. I call this trait ‘situational awareness’. Wayne Gretzky’s father called it “skating to where the puck is going, not to where it is”.

Spacecraft simulators come in all sizes, shapes and functionality. This one sits atop a six-degree-of-freedom platform and provides motion cues to the crew from launch to landing.

Throughout my career, I have made dozens of mistakes. That’s okay. Learning from failure has been an effective way for me to learn and to take my performance to the next higher level. I prefer, however, to make my mistakes in the safe setting of a training session, not in space. At the end of each integrated simulation, all astronauts and flight controllers meet to review any mistakes and to debrief our actions. We discuss how the crew and ground team could have better coordinated amongst ourselves; and what additional information, skills and resources would have been helpful. Lessons learned are then incorporated back into procedures and flight documentation to address the vulnerabilities revealed during the sim. Crew checklists are improved, flight rules are edited, computer displays are refined, and crew training is updated.

These kinds of training experiences, repeatedly rehearsed, prepared me well for flight. On the mornings of both of my launches, I had faith in the soundness of our flight plan. And I trusted the abilities of me and my crew to respond quickly and properly to whatever challenges we were about to encounter.

So, when I now reflect on the response to the pandemic, I wonder if simulator-based training approaches would be useful adjuncts to the preparation of response teams. Could initial responses to the Covid-19 outbreak have been proactive and confident? If leaders had championed repeated simulations of a wide scope of pandemic scenarios in previous years, could their organizations have foreseen and mitigated after-effects? Perhaps we could’ve foreseen the strain on healthcare systems, aging infrastructure, supply chain issues, stress and fatigue in front line workers, and the distressingly high death rates in long-term care homes.

If the wide-ranging consequences of a pandemic had been systematically simulated, could we have identified and moderated the risk of infections in long-term care homes, cruise ships and meat-packing plants?

The next world crisis may not be another pandemic. It could be something different – perhaps a nuclear accident, an act of terrorism or a financial depression. Or it could be a natural disaster like a major earthquake, tsunami or asteroid strike.

Even though uncertain about the nature and timing of the next crisis, response teams must be thoroughly prepared to take action. Many organizations – public and private, large and small – have already developed management strategies to be implemented in emergencies. This is commendable. I further recommend that the soundness of these plans be tested in simulator-based exercises. While mathematical modelling of the spread of a virus, flood-waters or some other threat is one thing; the development of a simulation that exercises the leadership skills of the response team in a lifelike scenario is another.

Not all simulations need be elaborate undertakings. The Canadian Space Agency, for instance, reaps valuable insights from table-top exercises. On the other hand, organizations with significant responsibilities on the national and world stages, will need to devote substantial resources to run robust simulations. When large numbers of human lives and the economy are on the line, it’s essential that we invest in training. Crises don’t occur in isolation; we live in a world of interconnections and interdependencies. Trouble arising somewhere in the world will have repercussions that ripple throughout sectors of the economy and the far corners of society. These interconnections and interdependencies need to be assessed and threats mitigated so that at the time of an actual crisis, all issues will be addressed and responses will unfold quickly, correctly, smoothly and confidently. This is exactly how integrated simulations are intended to help.

I regard the writing of sim scripts to be an art as well as a science. The more attention that is paid to realism and interconnections, the more engaging and effective will be the training. The response team will benefit. On the day of a catastrophe, members will be spring-loaded to make confident, proactive and evidence-based decisions. Leaders will avoid knee-jerk or half-hearted reactions which can be dangerous.

Not everything about our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been negative. Our nation and some provinces are held in esteem by the international community for our non-ideological, evidence-based approach. And it has been encouraging to see the collaborations between our public and private sectors – I’m expecting an effective vaccine to be in mass production and distribution by next year.

But we can always do better. An organization or nation that espouses the safety and well-being of employees, customers and citizens as its top priority must invest in training. The abundant, high-quality preparation I received as an astronaut served me well. I recommend the same approach to prepare response teams for the unexpected challenges they will face with the next global crisis.

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