The Astronaut Perspective on Personal Isolation

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Biosphere 2 Arizona

The Astronaut Perspective on Personal Isolation During the COVID-19 Crisis

You might say you have entered the first part of your astronaut training. How to cope with personal isolation and social distancing. About a quarter of humanity is now experiencing some sort of a lockdown. That’s almost two billion people who have unexpectedly started their astronaut training, whether they realize it or not. 

To get a better understanding of how astronauts actually go about this two people with firsthand knowledge shared their experiences. Our Chief Space Officer Gregory H. Johnson is a former NASA astronaut. Jane Poynter lived two years inside Biosphere 2, a giant research lab in the Arizona desert that is built to help us understand the biosphere 1 – Earth’s ecosystem as well as future ecosystems on the Moon and Mars, by creating a controlled indoor biosphere. A magnificent project which Jane took a step further by living in that controlled environment in total isolation. Here is what they had to share with us.

Astronaut Greg Box JohnsonGreg

Lockdown. Like mackerel, you’re cramped in, unable to travel, unable to go out to shop except for bare necessities, interacting only with the same people (if you’re lucky enough to be stuck with any people at all). You know, it’s pretty similar to the isolation we experienced as astronauts. Perhaps it’s one of the not-so-glamorous parts of the job. But this was what we trained for. How to stay physically active and mentally fit, despite not being able to go out for a long walk, jog or go to the gym. It’s partly about expectations and routine. 

Today, it is the 12th anniversary of the landing of Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-123, which I was on. This is a fitting day to revisit my learnings from that time. So here are a few tips and tricks I have picked up throughout my career and training as an astronaut.

1.    Get an overview of the situation. What can you do, what can you not do, and what are the priorities? Map it, organize it, set it up; establish expectations from the start. We received flight plans from Mission Control daily – so we had a script for our new situation.

2.    Create working zones – at a safe distance from the kids or other distractions. My most unpopular moment on board the ISS (International Space Station) was probably when three of us starting jamming with musical instruments – right next to a module where other astronauts were performing serious repairs on our CO2 scrubber.  It was a slice of our free time, but not for everyone. So, although we were having great fun, we shortened our terrible cacophony in music – I believe the first on-orbit rock band – as we butchered “Brown Eyed Girl.” 

The Endeavour Space Shuttle

3.  If you fear you are going to get bored, work to fill your time with activites. This is particularly important ifyou are alone in your isolation and not with your family. Creating a routine helps you cope with an otherwise mundane environment, knowing when to move from one task to the next and being able to concentrate on each one of them. Trying to manage everything at once: workouts, office work, homeschooling and watering the plants at the same time would burn out anyone. Houston made sure we would not get bored by providing us with a busy schedule. Fill non-work hours with online courses, book reading, re-organizing old photor, or even a movie night. On STS-134 we all started to watch Armagedddon, but Mark (Kelly) and I left after the Space Shuttle (on the movie of course) exploded!

4.    Physical exercise. On the ISS, expedition crews were scheduled for two hours of PT per day. Microgravity has a significant effect on our bones and muscles – especially long duration flights. On Earth, 30 minutes are perfect, but even just 15 minutes of light exercises and stretching are a great start. Our colleagues at Space Nation have created a few videos with exercises that anyone can check out and follow. We’ll start sharing them in our next mission brief.

5.    Conflict is inevitable. Highly trained astronauts, after years of team building exercises, still have conflicts. I remember on one of our expedition training trips, we identified several personality quirks that surfaced in close quarters. Small things can easily become an issue when you’re strained. The key is to not let it escalate. Learn to love people for their flaws and quirks. Most of them are small compared to the bigger picture. 

6.    Find a new hobby. This may sound cliché, but finding something that takes your mind off of an ordeal can actually be very important. Something where you find a challenge or a project that you can nurture and develop for your sheer enjoyment.

7.    We are all in this together. This is probably the most important lesson of space travel: when you see our planet from space and realize that our Earth is really its own big beautiful Space Ship, hurling around the sun. It’s a closed loop ecosystem and we are all connected. Today’s challenges are a perfect example. The virus is a global issue which we all face and we will not beat it unless we all work together. Everyone pulls their weight. Respect the rules, take care of your crewmates AND your Space Ship Earth.

Jane PoynterJane

I agree with many of Greg’s observations, and after spending two years and twenty minutes sealed inside Biosphere 2, here are a few additions that I found important in this context.

1.    Use your boredom. It can be an uncomfortable state from which can come great creativity. Inside Biosphere 2 we made music, sometimes with people around the world over the phone (there was no Internet to speak of then). We wrote poetry, painted and had “inter-biospheric art festivals” with artists in Biosphere 1, the Earth. Not traditionally artistic? Then find some other outlet for your creativity. 

2.    Get a professional. If we are secluded for an extended period during this time, our psychological baggage can bubble up, and people can start to act out. We do not always bring our best selves to isolation. And most of Earth’s population in seclusion now are not trained for it. So, don’t hesitate to seek help from a professional. We did and it was immensely helpful. 

3.    Reconnect. In the past week, I’ve talked to people I haven’t spoken to in a long time. The same urge to connect with friends seemingly lost to time arose in Biosphere 2. Reaching out beyond the confines of our small world created a sense of larger community in which humans thrive. 

Astronaut Mindset

We hope Greg and Jane’s perspectives help you get in the right mindset for the days and weeks that are to come. This is a challenge and you do have what it takes to get through it sane and sound. When we all finally get to go outside, feel the dirt under our bare toes and hug our friends and family it will be like coming back to Earth after a journey to the ISS – or even better, after a visit to a future colony on the Moon. You are preparing. You are astronaut material. You are allowed to feel bad, feel sad, feel isolated. But don’t give up. We are all in this together. The good news is that you can call a friend, a school mate, a colleague, an old aunt. Do it. It feels good. 

Good luck and may the force be with you.

PS. Here are a few helpful links on perspectives from various astronauts who also spent considerable time on the ISS, as well as a link to a course from Arizona State University about the Biosphere 2

Astronaut Scott Kelly – after his 340 days in space (New York Times)

Thoughts from MIT (and Greg’s crewmates Greg Chamitoff and Mike Fincke)

Thoughts from astronaut Valerie Stimac found on LinkedIn

Comments from astronaut Leroy Chiao

Biosphere 2 Science for the Future of Our Planet

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