Updated: Mar 31
Helen Sharman, Britain's first astronaut sent me a letter this morning with her tips on surviving isolation. As an astronaut she trained for and executed missions that involved periods of isolation and uncertainty, and her advice is most valuable. In her own words:
THOUGHTS ON CONFINEMENT AND ISOLATION IN SPACE
By Helen Sharman
First British Astronaut
27 March 2020
Choosing to put myself in a small spacecraft with only a few other people, having planned and trained for this over many months, is not completely analogous to the COVID-19 circumstances of uncertainty, self-isolation and social distancing. However, there are some similarities of the current situation with being confined to a spacecraft in a hazardous environment, so I have pulled together a few thoughts here.
1. The Earth is a beautiful sight out of the window of a spacecraft but as I passed over parts of the planet where my friends and family lived, it was them I thought about. Astronauts miss being close to loved ones and meeting people face to face but contact by satellite phone and email helps. On Earth, we have many ways to communicate electronically and simply waving to neighbours or saying hello when we pass people two metres away in the street can cheer up the day.
2. Cooperation, respect and tolerance are vital in a spacecraft. Open communication helps us to understand each other’s frustrations and what makes us happy. And it helps if the grotty jobs are shared (tasks like compacting the solid toilet waste and changing filters are done on rotation in space).
3. In orbit, our lives relied on everyone doing a good job. Sure, it was unnerving when we lost electrical power and tense while we performed a manual docking but nearly thirty years on, my crew and I are still friends. Hard times shared can be a truly bonding experience.
4. Mission Control scheduled my days to the nearest minute in order to make efficient use of my time. I took pleasure in small elements over which I could exert some control, like what sort of fruit juice I drank and when I went to sleep. Now, we have been told to stay at home but we still have some control. And there is a huge purpose: to save lives.
5. I was not scared or anxious living with the risks of space travel because I had plans and back-up systems. I knew what to do in various situations like loss of air pressure, a fire or loss of radio contact. With COVID-19, it could be as simple as having a set of contacts in easy reach or a schedule for accessing the home computer.
6. The scientific experiments I did in space made my mission feel useful. And I was grateful to be busy because that made me feel useful. If our work diminishes suddenly and our days become less busy, we can feel at a loss. However, if helpful, we can make our own daily schedules and we can still have targets and make achievements every day that are useful.
7. One of the luxuries astronauts enjoy is scheduled free time; Earth-gazing, books and films figure highly. Now, COVID-19 means we can do some of the things we have always wanted to do but were previously too busy for. And we can plan something nice to look forward to because this will not last for ever.
8. I loved views of Earth. The sun reflecting off lakes, lights in cities appearing as we entered dusk and spectacular sunrises were just some of the entrancing sights. Now, we can take time to enjoy views like beautiful clouds, joyful birds and changes in sunlight. And on Earth, we can open a window and smell the fresh air!
9. In space, I did not once think about possessions. Back on Earth and confronted by materialism, I downgraded the relative value of ‘stuff’ in my life and I think COVID-19 will have a similar effect on many of us. Apart from environmental benefits, we will feel the change in society that will be more communal, more cohesive and generally nicer. When the pandemic is over, the world will be a better place than it has been for a long time.
Photos: Top photo courtesy of Thomas Angus, Imperial College, London. Bottom photo courtesy of Helen Sharman