If anyone knows about how to deal with being far from family and friends, and working in close quarters, it’s astronauts. From the earliest space missions with capsules barely bigger than astronauts and their equipment to record-setting durations aboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts have pushed the physical, psychological, and emotional limits of spending time in space and conducting research there.
In the past few decades, NASA has become increasingly concerned with the toll of spending time on space missions. From extended ISS missions to the prospect of weeks- or months-long lunar or Mars missions – and even colonization –, there’s a lot to try and understand when it comes to sending humans into space for any length of time.
“Isolation and confinement is like being alone in a cramped space, and that feeling worsens over time,” says Bill Paloski, Ph.D., Director of NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP). “The longer and longer a person spends in that kind of environment, there is a potential for bigger and bigger problems.”
As part of the attempt to understand these potential problems and prepare astronauts, NASA funded the HI-SEAS mission on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. The Martian-like environment offers participants a realistic simulation of what life will be like for astronauts on Mars someday. During each of six missions between 2013 and 2018, four- to six-person crews operated in isolated independence, and attempted to maintain self-reliance and sanity for up to a year.
NASA is not alone in this endeavor: between 2007 and 2011, three crews of volunteers participated in a simulated Mars isolation study, called Mars-500, supported by Russia, China, and ESA; in March 2019, international participants in the Scientific International Research in a Unique terrestrial Station (SIRIUS)-18/19 project spent four months in isolation; and China has run a series of small-crew isolation experiments at their simulated Lunar Palace 1 facility.
All this to say: astronauts know a lot about isolation, social distancing, and life in small spaces with limited resources. Who better to provide us all advice on the current social conditions – which range from border closings and self-quarantine to total lockdown depending on where you live – than these experts?
Forbes sat down with two astronauts and asked their advice on how we can all keep from going stir-crazy over the next few months.
See the Bigger Picture & Set Realistic Expectations
“Take stock of your situation, make an honest assessment of where you are,” advises Dr. Chiao, who spent more than 229 days in space over the course of several missions. “What resources do you have and how long you might be in this situation? That helps you prepare mentally.”
NASA astronauts generally know how long each mission will last and what resources they will have. That’s a great advantage over us here on earth facing uncertain timelines for when we can stop following “shelter-in-place” orders and social distancing.
Dr. Chiao shared a story of preparing mentally for a six-and-a-half month mission, only to receive late notice that mission might extend to 12 months. He knows the feeling of uncertainty too: “That was kind of a shock to us because we’d been training for three and a half years having this expectation of six months [mission duration]. So that shows you how the uncertainty can can can get in there and kind of mess with your your expectations.”
At the end of the day, seeing the bigger picture can help keep it all in perspective. Astronauts get to look down on earth and remember what their missions are for; we on earth have to remember that all of these measures help save lives – an equally worthy mission.
(NASA offers a live stream from the ISS, if you want the astronaut’s perspective too!)
Stay Busy & Keep Your Mind Active
John Grunsfeld PhD, retired NASA astronaut and Hubble Space Telescope repairman spent over 59 days in space. He notes that one advantage of astronaut missions over our current social distancing and remote work policies are that NASA keeps astronauts very busy.
“Nearly every minute of the day is scripted with tasks,” shares Dr. Grunsfeld. “While we were isolated, we had regular contact with the ground. At some times, so much contact that we wished the ground would leave us alone and let us get our work done.”
As for those of us on earth, Dr. Grunsfeld recommends the following: “Start a new project or challenge that you’ve wanted to do but didn’t have the time. Trade your commute time for learning a new skill.”
Keep Your Body Active, Too
“On the International Space Station, the other key activity to maintain good health – mind and body – is regular exercise,” says Dr. Grunsfeld. Astronauts are required to spend several hours each day exercising; this helps maintain their physical wellbeing and also taps into the psychological benefit of exercise to fight depression and other mental health issues.
Even as parts of the world enter various states of lockdown, most of the ‘shelter-in-place’ orders within the U.S. allow citizens to leave their home for exercise (hiking, walking, running, or cycling) as long as we maintain social distance (6 feet or more). “Try to get some exercise every day – outside if possible, while keeping social distance,” advises Dr. Grunsfeld.
Keep Your Base of Operations Clean & Comfortable
In space, astronauts rely on their spacecraft to keep them alive; there are some riveting tales about the risk and reality of life in space in Commander Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. While these seem abstract or far-fetched, it’s important to keep our earthly abodes operational too – especially as we’re spending a lot more time in them.
“In your own home, make sure that as much as possible things, you’re in a state of good repair, and you’re making your surroundings as comfortable as possible,” advises Dr. Chiao. “Make sure the systems are working. Keep on top of malfunctions.”
Translating this from astronaut language back to earth, this means you should make sure your boiler or washing machine isn’t about to call it quits, your roof won’t be leaking in on the next rainy day, and you’ve got a few extra comforts to keep your home feeling homey. (In my house, that’s fresh daffodils and candles!)
Another tip is to make sure each person in your home has their own space to escape the rest of the ‘crew:’ “On the ISS one thing we’ve learned is to make sure each crew member has their personal space that they can decorate with family photos and be alone when they want to,” shares Dr. Grunsfeld. “For folks confined to their homes or apartments with other people, my recommendation is to try to spend some ‘away’ time each day to give your brain a ‘socialization’ rest.”
Take Stock of Your Supplies
You’ve heard it before: stop buying all the toilet paper, eggs, and other groceries.
“Please try to avoid the urge to go in panic buy because you’re going to help create artificial shortages that hurt everyone,” advises Dr. Chiao. “It’s important to keep up your supplies, but if everyone goes out and just buys normally what you need, then we should all be OK with that.”
And when it comes to consuming your entire Coronavirus stock of snacks, the best way to prevent that is by not buying them in the first place: “It’s human nature that if you have a lot of something, then you tend to eat more of it.” Put the candy bars, goldfish crackers, and bottles of wine back on the shelf and slowly back away.
Keep Channels of Communication Open
In earlier missions, astronauts had intermittent communications – email syncing every eight hours and voice-over-internet calls with family and friends whenever the satellites were aligned. (Wouldn’t we all like to only receive work emails every eight hours?!)
Today, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are in constant contact with earth, which helps reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness they experience: “For the last several years aboard ISS, you do have real time e-mail,” says Dr. Chiao. “We do have real time Internet access. And so the isolation is not as as much as it was before.”
Dr. Grunsfeld recommends the same policy for us on earth: “connect with family and friends frequently – virtually, of course.”
Do Things to Help Each Other & Keep Spirits Up
Humor (all those memes we keep sending each other), small pleasant surprises, and little notes to say ‘I’m thinking of you and hope you’re well’ can go a long way to combat the distance we feel as part of social distancing.
“I would take pictures of different places on the earth that meant something special to a family member or a relative or a friend. And I would email the picture to those of those peoples and they would really appreciate it,” shares Dr. Chiao. “And they in turn, would send me photographs or short video clips. It kind of kept my spirits going as well.”
So yes, those cat pics and text messages help. As do unexpected Amazon Prime gifts or Facetiming with friends and family you can’t travel to see in person.
Valerie Stimac Contributor I cover space and astrotourism where travel and science intersect.