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Monday 27 April 2020

C-19 Sensemaking

Splendid isolation

Some people have practised social distancing the extreme way – in space. Here’s what they have to teach us

By Jacqui Goddard

There wasn’t a whole lot of “just popping out for a walk” from Terry Virts during his six months in confinement. The three times he managed it, he required hours of preparation, some hefty manoeuvring and a million-dollar suit with a built-in life support system.

Back indoors, getting along with some of his room-mates required him to learn Russian. The only water on tap was recycled urine. Going to the toilet involved anti-gravity pumps and fan-driven suction hoses.

But living in zero gravity conditions beyond the final frontier also had spectacular advantages. “I mean, there was a pretty good view,” says the former International Space Station commander.

Orbiting 250 miles above Earth, as one of only six humans absent from it from December 2014 to June 2015, Col. Virts learned strategies for surviving isolation that he is now putting to the test again. Stuck at home alone in Houston, Texas, he is drawing once more on the psychological preparedness lessons learned from his decades as a US Air Force fighter pilot and astronaut to get through coronavirus quarantine.

Rule number one, he advises, is attitude control.

“The military and Nasa take that side of things seriously – the need to get people through challenges and adversity not just physically intact but mentally,” says Virts, 52.

“With this pandemic, people are scared, people are frustrated – and the most important thing is attitude. You have to think ‘This situation is tough, but I’m tougher, this is going to end.’ Believe you’ll get through it.”

To his 361,000 Twitter followers, it might have seemed that time was passing a bit slowly for Col. Virts as the pandemic bore down. In mid-March, he was photographing weeds in his garden and pondering whether to hack them down. He snapped a picture of some toilet paper and mused that it was “better than finding a hundred dollar bill on the ground”.

At his desk, though, he is observing another key rule: keep busy. Grounded from public speaking engagements, he is working on a fundraising venture for Guide Dogs for the Blind; a production project; space industry consulting; and preparations for the release of his new book, How to Astronaut.

He spent 213 days, 10 hours and 48 minutes off his home planet, spread over two missions; one a 13-day voyage on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2010; the other on the ISS for what was originally scheduled to be a five-month stay, during which he learned the value of rule number three – embrace unexpected changes.

For earthlings in lockdown, that might mean maintaining a stiff upper lip upon getting to the supermarket to find all the biscuits sold out. For Col. Virts, it meant keeping calm and carrying on when a Russian rocket sending up a resupply vehicle in April 2015 exploded, dooming an ISS-bound payload of science equipment, oxygen, food and an all-important change of underwear to a fiery demise. The incident grounded transport to and from the ISS, pending an investigation, and left their replacement crew stuck on Earth.

“But when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” chirps Col. Virts.

“We were effectively stranded in space and didn’t know how long for, which was bad. The replacement crew was no longer coming… supplies weren’t coming. It sucked. In the military, you can get through a deployment as long as you know when you’re coming back, but as soon as you’re delayed, that’s when people crater and get depressed.

Terry Virts, Commander of Expedition 43 aboard the International Space Station

“We took the ‘will to survive’ attitude, a ‘make the most of it while we can’…. We got more work done, more time together. For people at home: find the positives. When are you ever going to have this time with your loved ones again… your kids? The answer is probably never. Remember that prayer: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’”

He recommends his F-16 fighter pilot mantra for surviving any challenge from toilet paper shortages to family discord, or – in his case, in January 2015 – an alarm sounding on the ISS alerting the crew that they may be about to die. “Maintain aircraft control, analyse the situation and take appropriate action,” he recites.

The alarm indicated a toxic ammonia leak, forcing the US crew to shelter in the Russian segment of the ISS for 11 hours. It turned out to be a false alarm.

Stay in touch with family and friends, he stresses. On the ISS, there is internet and telephone access. But he advises daily team meetings to get on top of fake news. “During my unexpected bonus time in space we had a meeting every day. I’d get all the crew together and say, ‘What have you heard?’ I didn’t want rumours on the ship. We had a time of day to get all the news out.”

Take time to find your artistic outlet, he suggests – he became NASA’s most prolific space photographer, snapping more than 300,000 shots and publishing them in a book, View From Above – and maintain humour. Have a basic schedule but build in variations. Adopt a project, learn something, clean something. Pick a theme song to commemorate your time in quarantine, he moots. His is R.E.M.’s ‘It’s the End of The World As We Know It’. Its lyrics: “I had some time alone… and I feel fine.”

“A key thing is having time alone. Have a private place where you can be on your own… you can’t be together 24/7,” he says. “It’ll drive you crazy.”

Appreciate your surroundings. Gazing upon the blue marble from space, witnessing its fragility and unity, has for many an astronaut prompted a profound cognitive shift known as the “overview effect”.

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it,” the late Apollo 14 moonwalker Ed Mitchell wrote. “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

Now, astronauts say, terrestrials are seeing it too – a sense that all humanity now has a common enemy that they must unite to defeat.

“This is one of the few times when it’s very clear to everybody on this planet that we are all one life form… being challenged by a little bug we can’t even see,” said Rusty Schweickart, 84, lunar pilot on NASA’s Apollo 9 mission in 1969.

Speaking on a virtual town hall organised by Asteroid Day and the European Space Agency, he said: “We’re used to being individuals and it’s kind of a shock to find that we’re really in a sense all one… this is a really big moment in time when suddenly everybody on the whole damn planet has realised it.”

Astronaut Nicole Stott, 57, who flew two space shuttle missions in 2009 and 2011, also spoke at the virtual town hall – and summed up our current predicament and opportunity.

“When we’re in space… we have this beautiful planet glowing below us, all the colours of our Earth, it’s just stunning, and that gives us this undeniable sense of the inner connectivity of it all,” she said.

“I’m hopeful that as we emerge out of our homes together at some point, hopefully in the near future, we can all embrace… this idea that we live on a planet and we’re all earthlings and the only border that matters is that thin blue line of the atmosphere that blankets and protects us all.

“What we’re going through now, like spaceflight, is a profound experience. You can’t come out of the other side without something changed in you…We need to leave this as crew of spaceship Earth, not as passengers.”

Pictures Getty Images and NASA

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