What training for a space mission taught me about working in isolation

Even though I am probably best known for my IT work, I have also spent several years actively training to fly on a commercial space mission. Space flight may be the ultimate in social distancing. You’re separated from friends and family, and going outside for a bit of sunshine and fresh air isn’t an option. In many ways, though, the confinement and isolation that are endured during a space mission really aren’t all that different from what so many of us are going through during the current pandemic. After all, many people are currently being forced to stay home, working in isolation effectively away from the rest of the world.

So how do astronauts cope with confinement and isolation, and more importantly, how can those techniques be applied to life on Earth during the current pandemic? Before I attempt to answer that question, let me just start out by saying that I have not yet been to space (although that day is coming). Even so, I have been training for long enough to have learned some valuable lessons about confinement and isolation. I am also currently under consideration for an analog mission at the Mars Desert Research Station, which will mean spending weeks living in isolated, Mars-like conditions.

Scheduling is important

One of the keys to dealing with living in isolation is to maintain a schedule and to set goals for each day (even if they are small goals). There are two reasons why this is so important.

First, sticking to a schedule helps to prevent boredom. Have you ever noticed how the astronauts on the International Space Station always seem to be busy doing something? Part of the reason why they stay so busy is because the countries that send astronauts to the space station want to be able to accomplish as much science as possible during the astronaut’s visit. However, an almost equally important reason, is that scheduling helps to prevent boredom. After all, you can only spend so much time looking out the window or playing in zero gravity before it starts to become monotonous.

The second reason why it is so important to create schedules and work toward goals is because doing so has a positive psychological effect. When you are working toward a goal (even a relatively unimportant one), you tend to feel as though you are actually accomplishing something. From a mental well-being standpoint, this is far better than mindlessly binge-watching movies and TV shows all day.

As important as it is to schedule activities and to set goals, it is equally important to build some variety into the schedule, even when working in isolation. Let me give you an example of why this is so important. Right now, it’s about 3 p.m. and I am in the process of writing this article. I have some other things scheduled for later today, but imagine if, instead, I had scheduled myself to write articles until midnight. Even though I like to think that I have the work ethic necessary to deal with such a schedule, the quality of my writing would likely diminish significantly throughout the evening.

This is why it is so important to build some variance into your schedule. Switching things up throughout the day can help you to stay mentally sharp. If you know that you’re going to have to spend a few hours doing something that is mentally tedious, try to schedule some time immediately after that to get some exercise, or to take on a task that is a bit more physical in nature. Astronauts on the International Space Station are required to exercise for two hours each day. When possible, exercise sessions are scheduled in a way that will help to break up the day.

Accept that everyone has a bad day once in a while

One of the hardest parts of being working in isolation is that the circumstances often mean being confined with other people in a limited amount of space. This is true whether you are orbiting the Earth together, or are simply stuck in a small apartment with other family members or roommates.

One of the keys to coping with working in an isolated and confined environment is to be willing to accept the idea that everybody has a bad day once in a while. Normally when that happens, the best thing that you can do is to give the person the space that they need. Eventually, the person will inevitably get over whatever it was that was bothering them, and everything will go back to normal.

Of course, if you are in a really small space (such as a capsule), physically giving someone space might not be an option. In those types of situations, it’s probably best to just try not to take offense at anything the person happens to say, and assume that tomorrow will be a better day.

working in isolation
The Orion capsule is far roomier than vintage space vehicles. The photo is of myself and fellow crew member Heidi Hammerstein preparing for a simulation.

Remember: You are not truly isolated even while working in isolation

Whether you are in space or quarantined at home, technology makes it possible to overcome some of the feelings of isolation. Try taking a time out to call (or better yet, video chat with) a family member, or perhaps a friend that you haven’t seen in a while. It will help you to feel less disconnected from the rest of the world, and it may also help the person that you are calling. That person is probably feeling just as disconnected as you are right now.

Be helpful, but don’t over-help

When you train for a space mission, you often find yourself working in crowded, confined spaces. Given the space limitations, it is easy to end up getting in each other’s way. I can think of several situations on board the vomit comet (the airplane used for zero-gravity flights) in which an impromptu repair had to be made to one of the experiments. Whenever this has happened, there is a natural tendency among the crew members to want to help. Given the limited amount of space on the aircraft though, a well-intentioned crew member who is trying to help might instead end up getting in the way.

One way that some of us have learned to cope with the lack of space type of situation is by asking the question, “What is the most helpful thing that I could be doing right now.” That gives the person who is doing the repair the opportunity to either ask for help or to ask for a bit of space. In either case, it helps the crew to do a better job of working with one another. It also helps to diffuse any tensions that might occur as a result of being cooped up in a confined space.

Don’t forget about me-time

One last bit of advice that I would pass along is to not be shy about scheduling a bit of me-time — even when working in isolation. Spending some time alone at the end of the day can be very therapeutic. It gives you an opportunity to relax, and to put aside the stresses of the day that inevitably come from being confined. In fact, the International Space Station has private bedrooms (albeit small ones) for this very reason. Retiring to one’s own quarters at the end of the day gives crew members a chance to decompress.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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