24 Apr 2015

Learning and Leading in Space


BOSTON—Speaking to a packed auditorium at Harvard Business School on Wednesday (April 22), Terry Virts, a 2011 alumnus of the General Management Program (part of the School’s Executive Education portfolio) had the audience transfixed to their seats. He, however, was literally floating in space, as part of a live video chat from NASA’s International Space Station (ISS). As the station’s commander and pilot, Terry, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, has been aboard the vehicle since Nov. 23, 2011.

Describing the experience, he said, “Every day you see something you never imagined you would see. It’s neat to see the Earth this way. For instance, Central Africa and India are hazy, Western Australia is very red. The Himalayas look small from space. It’s fascinating to look down on creation.”

HBS professor Sunil Gupta, who chairs the General Management Program (GMP), interviewed Virts, asking him a range a questions about his experiences in space and how GMP had prepared him for this important mission. Virts spoke about how invaluable GMP had been to his training as a leader. “I learned to work in small groups and understand the true value of diversity,” he said, “since participants come from all over the world for the program.”

On the Space Station, he collaborates with astronauts from Russia and Italy, and he said it was humbling to lead and learn from his colleagues, all of whom have a diverse set of skills and expertise. Testament to the deep bonds that form during an Executive Education program at HBS, five of Virts’s “living group” mates had flown to Kazakhstan for the launch last fall: Bao Nguyen, Stein Ulwe, Roman Lyadov, Eric Gillespie and Kedar Munipella.

Remembering the Dabbawala case taught by HBS professor Stefan Thomke, Virts pulled out from a shelf in the station the small, white cap worn by dabbawalas in Mumbai as they deliver thousands of lunches each day without an error. At one point it went floating in front of him, due to the microgravity environment, and Virts wore it for a few seconds. Thomke asked about the astronaut’s favorite technology on the ISS. “I’m surrounded by technology here as you can see,” Virts pointed out, “but if I had to choose, I really enjoyed my space walks. I also appreciate the simplest technology, such as how we are able to tie our trash bags in space. Trash is a huge conundrum here, and this helps a lot.”

As a special surprise, Virts’s mother and father were also in the audience, and he was able to greet them and tell them how much he loved them. With only three weeks left on ISS before he comes down to Earth, he said he was most looking forward to spending time with his family on his return.

Giving advice to young people who aspire to be astronauts, Virts asked them to follow their passions, be true to themselves, and do what they love. The rest will follow.

You can follow Virts on Twitter @AstroTerry and Instagram @astro_terry.


Zeenat Potia

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.