When it comes to surviving and thriving in self-confinement, astronauts are serious pros.
Becoming trained and certified to work in outer space takes years, and a good chunk of that time is spent learning the art of living in close quarters. During a typical six-month mission, there are plenty of chances to go stir-crazy without personal space — but also co-worker privacy, hot showers, normal toilets, and, well, gravity.
“Being prepared for isolation is part of our training,” says Matthias Maurer, a German astronaut currently helping to develop the European Space Agency (ESA)’s future manned missions to the moon. “Every two weeks [in space] we have an obligatory phone call with the psychologist as prevention.”
Maurer recently took part in a livestream hosted by the ESA’s YouTube channel. Astronauts from around the world appeared via Skype, answered audience questions, and gave personal tips from their time in space, proving to be the isolation gurus we need right now.
According to Maurer, who is currently preparing to receive his first space mission sometime between 2021 and 2024, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is the real-life training drill he never would’ve expected in a million lightyears.
Despite this, Maurer offered those of us struggling some hope. Astronauts are taught to imagine the worst-case scenario and make decisions based on preventing it. While in space, the right call might not be clear, but when it comes to coronavirus, we all know what we need to do to get through this.
“[Imaging the worst-case scenario gives] you the feeling not of losing control but that you have some control over the situation,” he said. “Now the situation is similar. We have a very effective means of limiting this illness — that is that we stay at home.”
During the livestream, Maurer’s forerunners also shared their wisdom. Here’s some of the astronauts’ best advice on enduring self-quarantine.”
Editor’s note: The livestream was conducted in German and translated for this article by a native speaker. Some translations, however, may be imperfect.
1. Live by your routine.
Social distancing is a long game, so creating a regular daily grind is key to maintaining your mental health, claim the experts.
“Just having some control and some certainty over how your day is going to play out is a huge psychological boost,” said NASA astronaut Nick Hague.
Thomas Reiter, the first German astronaut to perform a spacewalk, recalled a “very tight daily routine” aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
“It’s important to follow a conscious routine in such a situation,” said Reiter, who has retired from missions and now works as an ESA adviser. “Not just living day to day, but keeping a conscious sequence to pull through the day, and keeping that routine all week.”
For example, Reiter’s crew would always choose its favorite foods from the station’s container for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. Eating isn’t necessarily something astronauts look forward to in space (only specific non-perishable foods are allowed, and certainly nothing like bread and salt, which can get messy in microgravity), but at least this way weekend mealtimes became exciting.
Reiter’s comments got laughs from his fellow astronauts, who had done the same thing with their crews in space. Maurer also agreed with his predecessor that routines help to establish motivation.
“Every day must have a plan. You can’t start the day without knowing what you’re going to do,” he explained. “You have to have a project, something that fulfills you and makes you think, ‘Today I’m doing this, and if I achieve it will make [me] content and happy.’”
2. Work-life balance is crucial.
On the ISS, each astronaut has a personal living quarter about the size of a closet, according to Hague. Closing the door every once in a while to take some alone time, whether watching a movie or reading, was essential to his sanity, he said.
Now self-quarantining with his wife and two sons, he practices that same principle of “me time” in the limited orbit of their family home.
“In some sense, it feels kind of like I’m living on the station again,” he joked, adding that maintaining a bit of “personal space [and] personal time is super important”.
“[I liked to] just kind of escape all the hustle and bustle and everything else that was going on … collect myself, my thoughts, and being able to escape,” he explained.
The ESA’s Alexander Gerst, the ISS’s first German commander, said he respected an “artificial boundary” between work and private life during his last mission in 2018.
“We had a conference with the landing station at morning and night, and we said everything in between is work time, and everything after is free time,” said Gerst from his home office. “You have to keep to that; it was also important for me to do that as commander too.”
There would always be data to collect and experiments to conduct, but powering through could lead to burnout, Gerst explained.
3. Get on video chat.
The astronauts were asked about missing loved ones during their missions and how they coped. Apparently, the ISS, orbiting 400 kilometers above Earth, is equipped for video chats and phone calls. So the astronauts recommended that people learn to depend on online resources like Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom during this difficult time.
Reiter said he talked to his family face-to-face every weekend from the ISS. Additionally, they were allowed to make phone calls as often as possible. He would do so “whenever there was a couple of minutes’ time in between,” offering the takeaway to not hesitate but just reach out when feeling lonely.
Meanwhile, Hague regularly did crossword puzzles with his boys from space — an activity that seemed trivial but offered quality time between father and sons.
“Just being able to connect that way was such a huge emotional boost,” he said. “It helped me prepare for the next day. Technology has advanced so much that we’re able to reach out and connect.”
4. Be mindful of others.
The astronauts urged people against panic-buying for the sake of others getting the supplies they needed too.
But more importantly, they zoned in on the importance of open communication with co-inhabitants — which in their case, were also their co-workers.
“You work together as a crew, you have to think of the others … Each of us has a quirk which we are comfortable with but which can annoy others,” said Maurer, telling a story about how his affinity for bananas annoyed a colleague who couldn’t stand the smell of them.
They had a discussion, created some ground rules, and were able to avoid future troubles.
Hague, who jokes that his current “full-time job” is not astronautical engineering but home-schooling his sons during home quarantine, said that the best advice he could give from his time in space was learning the value of teamwork.
Maintaining the ISS and working towards the common goal of getting back down to Earth was a team effort, he said. So it was important to help fellow crew members. Social distancing is the same idea — and, in many parts of the world, it’s working to slow the spread of coronavirus.
As Hague said, it’s us, “taking care of each other.”