4 out-of-this-world teamwork tips, from former astronaut Soichi Noguchi

Former astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, shares key insights on building more effective teams.

Gareth Francis
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Soichi Noguchi is an aeronautical engineer and former astronaut.
  • Speaking to the World Economic Forum’s Meet The Leader podcast, he explains how astronauts train on the ground to tackle challenges in space.
  • Teamwork is vital to the success of any space mission and the safety of the crew -- and these lessons can be critical to any leader or follower.

As an aeronautical engineer and former astronaut, Soichi Noguchi knows more about what makes a successful team than most. He has spent 344 days in space and is only the third person to have flown on three different launch systems.

Whether participating in spacewalks to test potentially life-saving repair techniques or completing scientific research while on board, teamwork is a critical component of any space mission, Noguchi says.


Having been selected by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) as an astronaut candidate in 1996, his first mission was to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2005 on the Discovery’s STS-114 – the first shuttle mission after the Columbia disaster. Noguchi returned four years later aboard a Soyuz-17, and again for his final mission, which launched in 2020 on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Earlier this year, Noguchi spoke with Linda Lacina, Digital Editor and host of the World Economic Forum’s Meet The Leader podcast during its Annual Meeting in Davos.

Here are four lessons he shared about working effectively as a team.

1. Respect expertise - and know how to follow

With so much expertise and specialism within the space industry, Noguchi says it is vital to know when to lead and when to follow. While astronauts may perform experiments in space, they are often following the instructions and guidance of experts from the ground.

“People tend to think astronauts play the leadership role,” he explains. “In reality, we take turns. Sometimes the ground team or the ground control teams take the lead. We follow whatever they think is the right thing.

“The science project [work] is joint work with the professors and the researchers on the ground, and we do only a small portion. And so teamwork is very important [as is] the leadership and the followership.”

Respecting expertise can help any team be that much more effective - avoiding "savior" syndrome (where one person tries to take on the lion's share of responsibilities), and ensuring that each member's skills can be deployed appropriately toward the goal.

2. Learn how to cooperate -- and trust -- your team

Astronauts prepare for space by train in extreme conditions on the ground. In one survival training session, Noguchi and his crewmates spent two weeks in caves in Italy with no sunlight, mountaineering in terrain not unlike Mars or the Moon. In another training, Noguchi spent two weeks in an underwater base in Florida to prepare for life in space.

“One way we learn teamwork is we go together for survival training,” he says. “Just like in space, if you go to survival training, you have to expect the unexpected.

Isolation is key to these sessions since the teams are forced to problem solve with each other and learn how they approach challenges that must be tackled in the moment.

“We cope with the changes, we cope with nature, and then step-by-step, we know about ourselves. We know about our teammates and we know how to cooperate.”

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3. Forget perfection -- but remember your ultimate goal

Although many people strive for perfection, Noguchi explained that this can sometimes hinder progress. In space, the crew’s survival can depend on overcoming challenges through a pragmatic approach.

“Although we train [for] a lot of different situations, sometimes, you come [across] unknown territory. Sometimes we have to decide what to do among ourselves. That happened on my last mission, and the important thing is we play as a team.”

Noguchi says that when faced with unexpected challenges, identifying overall priorities is vital. “You cannot have a 100% solution,” he says. In space, this ensures the ultimate goal - the team's survival.

Those of us on the ground can remind ourselves that when unexpected changes occur, plans must be adapted. Strong teamwork results in every member re-aligning on whatever their larger, ultimate goal happens to be. "All members have to line up to the one-goal vector."

The crew of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket departs for the launch pad for the first operational NASA commercial crew mission at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi Image: REUTERS/Joe Skipper

4. Collaboration keeps everyone safer

Noguchi concluded by championing the importance of collaboration between different players within the space industry.

It has been nearly seven decades since the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik into low Earth orbit. Since then, national agencies and private businesses have launched thousands of satellites.

The relative ease with which new equipment can be put into orbit brings great potential but also risk. A failure to work together will compromise the safety of anyone travelling into space, he warns.

“The space [industry] is quickly changing and we are doing a pretty good job inspiring the young generation,” he says. “The one thing [we] have to make sure [of is that], just like on the ground, space has to be sustainable. On the ground, we have climate issues. In space, we have a lot of new, small satellites, so we are starting to worry about the space debris conjunction.

“Maybe this is a good time for the World Economic Forum to get the warning call [out] to the rest of the world. We have to think about controlling and mitigating collisions.”

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