With governments across the world enforcing stay at home policies in an act to slow down the transmission of the Covid-19 virus, we’re all having to adapt our lives to socially isolate. These spacemen and women have spent several months at a time in space on countless missions, confined to live, eat, exercise and sleep in close confines to the rest of the crew. Astronauts undergo a series of intense training to prepare them, both mentally and physically. They have shared their experiences and advice with us;
Marsha Ivins retired from NASA in 2010 after a 37-year career as an engineer and astronaut. A veteran of five space flights, she has logged over 1,318 hours in space. She now works as an independent engineering consultant
Dr Garrett Reisman was a NASA Astronaut from 1998 to 2011 and Director of Space Operations at SpaceX from 2011 to 2018. He remains a senior advisor there whilst also teaching engineering courses on human spaceflight at the University of Southern California.
How well did your space training prepare you for the reality of isolation and living in close proximity to the rest of your team members?
Ivins: Shuttle crews consisted of 5-7 crewmembers and no crews were assembled with any attempt at personality matching or thought to personality compatibility. So sometimes you got lucky and ended up with a crew you loved, and sometimes, not so much. But at the end of the day our lives depended on each other so whether you enjoyed the company of your crewmates or not, you did in fact trust them. What the training (for shuttle flights, the training was 12-18 months) did do was let you learn to work with each other to get the job done. I think the biggest lesson we all had to learn (and in all cases it was self-taught) is that regardless of who you are on a crew with, you have to just get along. So you do.
Reisman: First key skill is communication; you want to be open and honest. You don’t want to keep things bottled up and you need to be able to admit when you’re wrong. Second tip is to have mutual trust and respect. In our training we were walking for very long distances carrying seventy/eighty-pound packs. If during this, my feet hurt and i ignore it and charge on eventually that’s not going to be sustainable and you will have to get medical assistance so the end result is not good for the team. You have to really be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses and accept help. My final tip is to think about how you are affecting the other members of your team. Even the smallest irritants become extremely amplified when you’re living in isolation. Are you making a mess, tapping your pencil or are you humming to yourself? Be really aware and just be really considerate.
How do you find the motivation to maintain your daily routine and rituals?
Ivins: As i’ve said, on a shuttle mission, our daily activities were scheduled in most cases, to the minute. That included sleep, meals, exercise and the occasional bit of free time (which was occasional and a tiny “bit”). We had nearly constant contact with mission control (on the ground). And we got the news every day (and not just the news about us!). A lot of the motivation to get the job done was in the doing of the job without gravity! There is nothing cooler than floating in space and in some cases nothing more challenging. So even the act of putting your pants on could at times reduce you to hysterical laughter. And then there was the view out the window. There was nothing that compared to that and even crewmembers on the space station who get to see that view for months on end, never tire of it. None of that is applicable to people forced to self-isolate at home, sorry.
Reisman: The best thing to do is stay busy: to prepare and train we studied some of the past expeditions that were successful and one particular expedition that there’s a lot of good lessons to be learned from was shackleton’s voyage to antarctica in 1915. One thing that shackleton was very good at was keeping his crew busy by scrubbing the floors and doing other daily chores. Another benefit to that is a home that is nice and tidy will give you psychological benefit.
Was exercise a part of your everyday routine, and if so, how important was it to maintaining a health mind?
Ivins: Exercise was a part of the daily routine and it was mandated to maintain cardiovascular and musculoskeletal conditioning for the return to earth. (there could be a long but interesting discussion on the effects of zero gravity on bodily functions; but i left that out). It was optional on a shuttle flight for the crewmembers who were not the commander and pilot, but it is mandatory for all crewmembers on the space station and they exercise 2 hours every day. Exercise includes cardiovascular and resistive conditioning. For them it is also to maintain the functions of the body necessary to keep them healthy and upright when they return to earth. That said, no one who does exercise would discount the positive effect of exercise on maintaining mental health, especially during times of stress.
Reisman: I think success in space is up to regular exercise and when you are accomplishing something, like again shackleton’s crew played football or soccer, then your mindset and endurance is better. Though, if we were having mental health issues in space, we also relied on experts on the ground to help us through, so if you are dealing with something like that in quarantine you should reach out. There’s a lot of physicians and helplines that are out there for both physical and mental health right now.
What were some of the most challenging physical aspects of the isolation on missions and how did you learn to cope with or overcome them?
Ivins: Time management is important. Knowing how long the mission will last lets you mentally prepare for the beginning, middle and end and even when a mission is extended at the last minute, you just adjust your mental calendar to accept that. So, for example, if you know you are now stuck at home for some period of time, plan out your daily activities to accommodate that. Then, instead of feeling that each day never seems to end, see each day as a journey you are completing. Today on the space station, the crew has 6 phone lines they can use to talk to anyone anywhere on the earth. And no one can call in! So, they never get telemarketer calls (that alone makes spaceflight the best thing ever!). They have email, can watch movies, see televised sporting events, have their ipods if desired. What we do not do in space is devote large quantities of time to video games (well no time that i know of to video game) and in your face of social media. Because we are busy. And that again is the biggest difference, we are busy because being in space is the job we were hired to do.
Reisman: In the space station we had the ability to do a type of webex or zoom, just like we’re all doing right now, and that was really important to still stay in touch with my family back on earth and see how things are going. And it’s equally as important for all of us right now to keep close with our friends and family. A challenging and scary moment was when i was near the end of my seven and a half spacewalk and we saw a piece of the shadow come loose and float away. So that was a little disconcerting but fortunately my crewmates had a really good reaction and he said ‘hey give me a camera’ and he took some really great pictures of that thing and sent them down to the ground. Within an hour they came back and told us ‘oh, actually that is one of the very few things that you don’t need!’
What is the best piece of advice you have for people to help maintain their positivity in light of their current situation?
Ivins: I think the superpower that every human being has is the ability to adapt. Actually, it’s the superpower of every living organism. And people, in particular, have the ability to be inspiringly creative in their adaptability. You are not really socially isolated; you are physically distanced. So, find a creative way to make whatever you are doing work. Your great idea may inspire someone else’s creativity and something great could come of it.
Reisman: Just keeping in mind kind the big picture about what we’re doing, the fact is you’re doing something that is protecting yourself and you’re doing something that’s quite altruistic as well and so keeping that in mind will get you through the pessimism that dominates the news. Think optimistically about the fact that you are helping the whole world at this time. Also, just remember that you kind of have to make the best of your situation!
Watch Mike’s home video on quarantine, isolation, and space:
Interested in booking Marsha Ivins or Dr Garrett Reisman as a keynote speaker for your next event?