One of the things that’s always fascinated me about humans in space is their profound seclusion. Think about cosmonauts cooped up in those tiny modules of the Space Age. Or those Apollo Command Module pilots like Michael Collins who sailed around the Far Side of the Moon utterly alone, out of Comms. reach. Even with his strumming guitar, who could be lonelier than Bowie’s Major Tom communing with a crackly Ground Control? ‘I’m feeling very still.’ So as we Earthlings weather a lockdown we never trained for, what can we learn from astronauts who’ve been doing this for years?
First up, you haven’t had a bad Pandemic Hair Day till you’ve experienced space helmets and zero G. Two weeks ago, NASA Astronauts Robert “Bob” Behnken and Douglas “Doug” Hurley, went into routine quarantine ahead of the launch this week on May 27th of Space X’s Crew Dragon mission. They began quarantine with their families, before transferring to the Kennedy Space Launch complex on 20th May. Behnken and Hurley will the first Americans to fly into space from US soil since 2011. When they reach the ISS, they’ll join three astronauts already aboard the station. And these are the professional isolators. ISS veterans have had plenty of advice to share recently.
Speaking to CBS This Morning, retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, (who spent a total of 665 days in space), said her space crew became her family, as well as her workmates, for the duration. Her main tip was: “You have to be able to communicate effectively… that is the most important thing you have to be able to do.’ Another NASA astronaut Scott Kelly told ‘The New York Times’ his strict daily schedule aboard the ISS gave him structure and a rhythm to the day. However he missed green spaces and fresh air; something we Earthlings still get to enjoy during the lockdown. Meanwhile Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield has created a YouTube guide to isolation, astronaut style. He outlines a four-point approach: assess the risks to your family and friends, work out your goals to keep you motivated, be aware of what your constraints are and then focus on actions that you can take to make your time in lockdown a positive one.
A BBC Future article quizzed astronauts about the psychology of isolation. They also suggested creating your own daily schedule and breaking the day into distinct parts with time out from work. Kjell Lindgren said it was important not to be hard on yourself if you mess something up. When he spent half a day repairing a machine, only to realise he’d fitted one part back to front: ‘folks on the ground gave me great advice. They told me not to feel bad about it and move on.’ Another tip from Jocelyn Dunn was to do fun things with your crew but also take time alone to decompress.
Meanwhile psychologists have noted that it tends to be around the 6 month mark that conflict surfaces aboard space stations. If you’re thinking you were tearing your hair out by Day 3, don’t despair. This is more about what experts call the ‘Third Quarter Phenomenon’ of a mission. ‘People begin to feel there isn’t really an end in sight.’ This is a time to refocus on motivations and draw down on those people skills of getting along. Of course, it’s hard in a pandemic to know how long our ‘mission’ might stretch out. But astronauts too can often face delays to launch and come back dates. As Lindgren said, ‘I tried not to set a countdown timer, so that if something changed, I wasn’t emotionally invested in a schedule.’
So how is your mission going so far? Here at Space Cat Press, we’ve been in lockdown for 43 days with three adults and the ship’s cat. So far nobody’s drawn blood, apart from Snowflake when her grooming routine gets out of hand. But that’s what you get for putting a cat into space… One of us is a health worker – so lots of disinfecting protocols on re-entry. One of us hates rules but likes her routine just so (Snowflake). The other two are keeping busy with a publishing schedule that sees our first e-book Desert Moonfire coming off the launch pad this coming Friday 29th May, just after the Crew Dragon launch on Wednesday. And we’re variously filling our downtime with EVAs in the park, a daily bop, poetry, YouTube videos, embroidery, Zoom Time with family and of course – crew nights bingeing on every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
We hope you are likewise keeping safe and keeping sane. And if you find the going tough, maybe you should just listen to the ship’s computer, who’s always got your best interests at heart:
HAL 9000: I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.
HAL 9000: Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?
HAL 9000: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.
(2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Warner Bros. Pictures 1968)