A message from MIT astronauts: Accept the mission and find your motivators

Keeping our distance from each other for an extended period of time is the most effective way to reduce Covid-19’s reach. But the prospect of prolonged social isolation is uncharted territory for many.

To get some perspective on how we all might navigate lives of temporary separation, MIT News checked in with three MIT alumni who have spent months at a time living quite literally away from the rest of the world, on humanity’s only outpost in space. Cady Coleman ’83, Mike Fincke ’89, and Greg Chamitoff ’92 have all served long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as NASA astronauts. While orbiting some 250 miles above Earth, they lived and worked in quarters about the size of a large house, with only the occasional opportunity to step outside of that house, on spacewalks to repair or maintain the station.

Even as they were physically isolated from the rest of the planet for months at a time, the astronauts found ways to bridge the distance with family and friends, over the phone, and through video chats. Just as importantly, they also made sure to find time for themselves, and embrace their isolation. Coleman, Fincke, and Chamitoff shared some of the lessons they learned from living in space, and how we can all commit to a mission to live, at least for now, at a distance.

Q: What was it like for you to be isolated from the rest of the world for long durations, even with the ability to email and video-chat with people on the ground?

CHAMITOFF: Living on the International Space Station is very much like being stuck in your house with a few people for a very long period of time. The ISS has about as much living space as a six-bedroom house. And hopefully you like your roommates and have established mechanisms for getting along even when there are disagreements. In space you feel separated from the rest of society — you are the only ones off the entire planet!

I expected to feel lonely during my six months in space, but it was quite the opposite. Having a daily sense of purpose, countless tasks and experiments to perform, and communication with people all over the world provided so much engagement with the world that loneliness was not a factor. There are some lessons here, perhaps, for everyone who now has to stay at home during this crisis.  

COLEMAN: I think what makes everything work is the mission. As an astronaut, I was on the forward edge of exploration, representing the many people who make the ISS mission and experiments happen. Right now our mission is to keep each other safe here on Earth. I think keeping that mission in mind makes it easier to wash your hands that one more time when you really don’t feel like it, and to tell friends who are more casual about social distancing things like, “No, I really don’t think it’s safe to do that together for now.”

FINCKE: We’re such social creatures that it is going to be a challenge for a lot of people to be a little homebound and not go out. For astronauts it’s something we’re used to — it comes with the territory.

Q: What do you remember of some of your more challenging times of isolation in space? How did you work through it, mentally or physically?

FINCKE: My first long-duration mission was during a time when the space shuttle was grounded because of an accident, and there were only two of us aboard the ISS for six months, with no visitors. When you’re in a confined space with someone else, you really have to make an extra effort to get along. We probably are all hard to live with. Some things I’ve learned in space I’ve taken back to the ground, for instance to tell my wife I appreciate her that much more, and things like that. You really learn to value relationships.

COLEMAN: We had one crew member whose mom passed away fairly unexpectedly while we were in space. We established we’d have our own memorial service at the same time as the funeral back home. And I looked at the world map and realized we were going to be passing over his hometown at the time of the funeral. So the six of us were there in the cupola together, and we had a few moments of silence, and I really felt we were together with all the family on the ground. When the mission you’ve chosen forces you to be isolated, you find a way to be the best you can.

CHAMITOFF: Hurricane Ike struck Houston during my long-duration mission. Johnson Space Center shut down and people were evacuating the city. Operations on the ISS came to a near standstill. For almost a week onboard, we were much more isolated than usual, and were determined to get useful things done. We had a task list of unscheduled activities, and if we could do them without ground support, we did. Admittedly, we watched more movies, did more exercise, slept more, and spent longer periods together talking at meals. We were worried about our loved ones on the ground, but the slower pace was good for our morale and camaraderie onboard.  

Q: Are there any tips that you can share to help people get through and perhaps even embrace this social-distancing period?

FINCKE: Maintaining a schedule, things to look forward to, and things to do and check off your list, can be a tool to help us all. Onboard the space station, as the mission progressed, we had things to look forward to, like the next cargo ship that came to give us new food, or a spacewalk, which is a really big deal. Same thing here: Just because I don’t have to go into work doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get up and be showered and dressed just like I would. Going to the grocery store tomorrow, even if it’s a little thing, is something to look forward to.

Also, find out what your motivators are. For me, I read science fiction, and at one point, NASA was able to give me an e-reader and I read about 50-60 books when I was up there. That was my thing. It can be a little lonely. So you need to know what your own motivators are.

CHAMITOFF: Engage with people using FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, or whatever tools you like. Make virtual plans with people. Spend time outside. I believe that when this is all over, we will have stronger and closer relationships because of it. Talk to your family and friends — perhaps more than you usually do. In space, I spoke to a friend or family member every night. It was a highlight of my day.  

COLEMAN: One of the things you have to do is figure out how to have some ways you have your space, whether mental or physical. If there’s someone in the house coming up to you every time they see a new notice about the coronavirus, you may have trouble having a straight thought about what we’re trying to do. So maybe say, let’s read those things twice a day. There are a lot of things we can’t control now. What are the things we can? We can control the things we learn. I’m thinking I may take some Skype lessons for playing the flute, and learning Chinese has always been on my list, as well as practicing my Russian. There are projects I have on my list, from finishing my website to cleaning out my attic, and right now it feels like I may, in a joyful and not so joyful way, get them all done.

Q: What about the experience of being isolated for so long was surprising or unexpected for you?

COLEMAN: I think about the things I wish I did when I was up on the space station. One is get enough sleep. Probably my whole life I’ve never gotten enough sleep, especially at MIT, right? So taking care of yourself is a really good thing ­— prioritize that. And also, some kind of journaling or recording: Jot a few notes, capture this time for yourself, whether you plan to share it with anyone or not. Take pictures that help people realize what it was like for you. Because your experiences may be valuable to others in the future.

FINCKE: Having been more isolated, it’s times like these, where an outside forcing function is bringing us together, that I value this time with my family even more. Take this time to focus on the human relationships — reach out, send an email, call someone, because there’s a little more opportunity now.

CHAMITOFF: Life will be a bit different, but you will adapt to it quickly. We are an incredibly adaptable species. We live in all sorts of extreme environments, including zero-gravity. One thing we do need, however, is each other. We can’t do this alone. Consider reaching out to others if you know they are alone. As long as we have family and friends to share this experience with, we will be okay.  

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