Lessons from space: Astronauts share isolation tips

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Orbiting for months, 400 kilometres above the earth with just a few colleagues, astronauts are no strangers to long periods of isolation. 

Astronauts from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been sharing their tips for coping with such circumstances.

British astronaut Tim Peake spent 186 days onboard the International Space Station (ISS), returning in June 2016. He says it’s important to establish habits and a routine.

“Habits and routine is so key really to keeping everything under control in a confined and isolated situation,” he says.

“That kind of structure that gives you on board the International Space Station is vital. I think we need to embrace that as well, here at home at these difficult conditions for everybody.”

Another piece of astronaut advice is to exercise regularly. NASA astronaut Tom Jones flew on four space shuttle missions, he used sessions on an exercise bike as a chance to clear his mind.

“We had an exercise bike and when I got a chance every other day or so to work out on that, that was really a good chance to clear my mind mentally,” he says.

Returning from isolation can also be challenging. NASA astronaut Nicole Stott spent 91 days onboard the International Space Station from August to November 2009.

“After landing and coming off the spacecraft and you’re a little wobbly and you’re a bit overwhelmed, a least I was, by oh my gosh, the air smells so good and there’s clean, fresh air blowing past me and I smell grass and dirt,” she says. 

“And, you know, all these things about nature that you just haven’t experienced really for a long time.”

Astronauts have also shared their hopes for the future. Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart hopes overcoming the coronavirus outbreak will unite mankind.

“This is one of the very few times when it’s very clear to everybody on this planet that we’re all one life form,” he says.

“I mean, our life form is being challenged by a little bug we can’t even see, but it is so insidious that it’s just spread through the whole community and suddenly we’re all confronted with the very same things.”

Peake hopes mankind will learn from the experience, particularly lessening our impact on the environment.

“It’s important, I think, for everybody to be thinking about what they’re doing now and capturing these lessons, about spending time with family, about thinking about what’s important, about minimalizing our impact on the planet,” he says. 

“We don’t need to go shopping for all the things that we really don’t need. So, I think that this period of isolation, we should hang onto the lessons.”

The astronauts were speaking as part of a live “SpaceConnectsUs” event, broadcast by the European Space Agency.

The global pandemic is even having an impact on man’s quest to explore space – earlier this month, ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos said they were postponing a planned joint mission to Mars until 2022, in part due to travel restrictions resulting from the new coronavirus outbreak

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. 

For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

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