If you stop to think about it, the experiences of astronauts in space are not so dissimilar from what we are experiencing at home as we shelter in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Astronauts orbit the earth every 90 minutes, and therefore get to view a sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes. If not careful, their days can blur together. Similar to what we are experiencing here on earth, their work and personal spaces aboard the space shuttle and the International Space Station are the same. They see the same people 24 hours a day for weeks and sometimes months at a time. This mirrors our current reality during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seven astronauts who spent a combined total of three years and 216 days in space shared some tips on how to thrive while maintaining social distance.
Days in space: 13
Fun fact: Camarda holds seven patents on various innovations, including NASA's Heat-Pipe-Cooled Sandwich Panel, named one of the top 100 technical innovations of 1983 by Industrial Research Magazine
Use humor and empathy
Prior to any launch, the assigned crew usually trains together for anywhere from six months to a year and a half. Part of that training is expedition training, where the astronauts are put in extreme conditions to better understand behavior during long-duration missions. You get to really know your crew. This is not unlike the family you are social distancing with. Times can get strained in high-stress situations. I always like to use humor to defuse tense situations as they arise. You need to be hyper-aware of everyone else on your team and have the empathy to pick up anyone who is down but also know when to give them the quiet time and support when they need it.
Cross-training your team
Astronauts are extremely focused on their mission and can run on pure adrenaline for the shorter missions. Team resilience is key to any mission and cross-training to build in redundancy is imperative given the fact that the size of crews will remain limited for the near future. You have a job, you have a mission. Everything else is secondary. You train hard and work to be the best so that you know your job better than anyone else. This is especially useful now as people are balancing work and home lives under extreme conditions. Being able to juggle these multiple demands effectively is challenging, especially with the added stress of trying to keep ourselves and everyone around us healthy and safe. Default to your training.
Days in space: 257
Fun fact: Holds NASA record for most spacewalks (10 spacewalks totaling 67 hours)
Have lines of demarcation
When you are working in cramped quarters, it is important to separate between personal and work space. Our crew quarters are where we would sleep and put our personal effects. It’s important not to return there until you go to sleep. The lines of demarcation are essential. Only work in a particular space or designate a certain space that is not for work.
Routine is key
Get up at the same time every day and follow a routine. Shower get dressed and start your day. This is a physiological signal to your body that you are pivoting to do work. Admittedly, this is challenging for those with young children at home.
Days in space: 8
Physician, engineer, social scientist and educator
Fun fact: First woman of color in space; First real astronaut to appear on Star Trek
Control the distractions
On the space shuttle, the day is highly scripted and mission control follows along. There is a lot of structure, procedures, and processes. We were constantly touching base with the ground. At home under social distancing, we need to specifically add structure to our day and control our responses to random stimuli; resist "when I'm at home" habits that could be distracting. While working from home, the days can get very long as we don’t have the commute to factor into our schedule. The good news is that I can be extremely focused, but the bad news is that my training as a physician tends toward embracing long hours and interrupted sleep. Not particularly great over extended periods.
Make and honor the free time
Even in space, we had downtime and it’s important to honor that. That’s the time you don’t need to be "productive". You can clear your brain - think, just sit, listen to music. The space shuttle was a confined space. Give yourself the time when you don’t push to create a work product and check a box. Understand that things won’t happen as routinely as you want them to, particularly with other people in the equation- particularly children. Make allowances for these challenges and opportunities.
Days in space: 157
Fun fact: Magnus is also an aquanaut and held the position of Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the professional society for the aerospace industry.
Get into a ‘mission mindset’
Get into ‘mission mindset’ by recognizing that you will just “deal with it”, deal with the current challenge. This is a real opportunity for people to figure out who they are, what stresses them out. It is a voyage of self-discovery. Find your stress relief. Mine is exercise. It allows me to keep a broader bandwidth on the mundane and annoying things in life. Work on ways to mitigate what makes you crabby. Think about what you need to succeed. In the current situation of social distancing, people have more freedom than astronauts do in space. On earth we can order pizza. In space, we learn to deal with what we have available.
Separate between work and social time
When you work, you are completely focused on the task at hand. Finding time to participate in social activities helps you decompress. In space, the crew would eat our meals and watch movies together.
Days in space: 107
Fun Fact: Reisman is also an aquanaut and the first Jewish crew member on the International Space Station.
Confidence is key
The anxiety from reading bad news, being stuck at home, and being fearful can be overwhelming. It can happen in space if you let it affect you. If you let anxiety and fear sap away your confidence, if you allow the doubt to creep into your mind, your performance and your ability to be a human and perform, will deteriorate rapidly. Confidence is key, but not overconfidence. Don't let fear and doubt creep in. It becomes toxic. I teach my flight students that if you are a pilot dealing with an aircraft emergency, you have to believe that you are Han Solo, the most extraordinary pilot that ever existed. Even if it’s not true, you have to believe it in the moment.
‘Space brain’ is when you have a challenging time focusing while in space. There are short term memory problems. There are many distractions when you are in a different environment. This is happening to a lot of people now as we are thrown into a new setting. People who are having challenges being productive should reset expectations and lower the bar. For a while that bothered me and that made me have a hard time falling asleep. If you are a Type A person who gets a lot of self-worth by getting things accomplished, this is a challenge. It is important now to lower expectations and be happy with the small wins. Redefine productivity.
Days in space: 104
Artist and Engineer
Fun fact: Stott is also an aquanaut. As an artist, Stott was the first astronaut to paint a watercolor in space. She believes it’s things like this that put the human in human spaceflight.
Appreciate new perspectives
In this new lifestyle of isolation and social distancing, it's even more important for everyone to appreciate the value of new perspectives. As astronauts isolated in space, we find our connection to home and nature through the windows of our spacecraft and the views of Earth below. Take the time to look around yourself, to look at what you've become accustomed to and rediscover what you feel familiar with in a new way. To find a connection with the people and nature we share this planet with, in a way that helps us better understand our interconnectivity and interdependence. By doing so we can find ways to feel even more connected no matter where we are.
Live like crew
It’s essential to realize that this is bigger than any one of us and how important it is for each of us to play our part to keep all of humanity safe. We find ourselves necessarily living like crew members on spaceship earth. Hopefully we’ll take the lesson that we can work together in this new way to solve any of our planetary challenges. We go to space and do complex things, and yet it comes down to the simple lessons of what we all share in common. We live on a planet. We are all earthlings. The only border that matters is the blue line of the atmosphere that protects us all.
Days in space: 665
Fun fact: Whitson holds multiple records including most days in space of any astronaut (male or female), oldest woman spacewalker, and total spacewalks by a woman (10 in total). She is also the first female commander of an International Space Station.
Make it a competition
Onboard the space station, mission control sent a task list and timeline by which everything needed to be accomplished. In order to not get bored doing certain tasks, I would challenge myself to finish them faster. This was especially useful for completing the monotonous tasks such as unloading cargo. I found a way to make it more exciting by pushing myself to see if I could do it faster than anyone else.
Remember the larger purpose
In addition to the critical work and experiments that we were doing, many mundane tasks needed to get accomplished in order to keep the space station functional. Even when doing the unglamorous work such as fixing the toilet repeatedly, or food off the walls, again, we realized we were contributing to a larger purpose. We were keeping the space station alive, contributing to space exploration. We did whatever it takes. In the isolation we are all facing at this time, the bigger purpose is to save lives. Remembering that key point helps us focus and gives us a purpose, even if it seems boring at times.
While each astronaut had a distinct experience in space, there were common threads throughout all of their stories. Chief within that is the need to remember the greater good and that others were counting on them to get the job done right. Common themes such as routine, structure, exercise and getting in some quiet time is what helped each astronaut thrive in space and on earth.