In Ridley Scott’s epic space movie The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after being presumed dead by his crew. He makes it back to his Martian habitat and turns it into a home fit for a human being away from Earth. The film is based on a book of the same name and was written by Andy Weir. He write the book in chapters that he uploaded to a forum and created each chapter drawing on feedback from actual NASA scientists who followed Watneys progress on Mars living alone and using science and ingenuity to improvise a survival strategy using all the equipment and resources at his disposal. In due part to their contributions Andy Weir was able to make a very true to life science fact based novel.
The science that is depicted in the book and the film is an inspiration to all the people back on Earth. Especially since Watneys situation and that of every astronaut can be applied to the lockdown and social distancing to survive Covid-19. Astronauts travel and work in small confined spaces with people that they can not mentally or physically detach from and need to be able to withstand this routine every hour of every day. As well as being physically fit to be a space traveller, you need to be mentally tolerant to the environment and situations that you can find yourself in.
Resilience and composure is a vital factor in space travel. If you can’t cope then you won’t be able to fly. Like those explorers you need to be able to handle it. Now when a situation like lockdown or a something else terrible happens you can do one of two things. You can either except the likelihood that you’ll suffer and die, or you can get to work and improvise a solution.
One former astronaut called Jay Buckey, launched an online package in April this year showing people how to cope in lockdown. Its contents cover all the basics of how astronauts cope with confined spaces that are similar in mature to being stuck at home. It includes training on conflict resolution, mood management and self-assessment tools to be able to monitor signs of anxiety and stress. I have some coping mechanisms and a routine at home as well. Some of them are similar to the routines of space faring astronauts.
Now a typical workday for an astronaut working on the International Space Station consists of working in a space with the volume of a jumbo jet airliner shared between 3 – 6 people at a time. The operate the science stations conducting experiments in a particular subject area. These last for up to several hours a day, with time split between work and leisure. This includes a series of mental and physical exercises to help them cope with the isolation and loneliness from their families and friends on Earth. They engage in fitness using a set of exercise machines adapted to work in zero gravity, staring out of the window at the Earth down below, listening to positively charged music and films, and counting on their co-workers in orbit to provide them with company.
Although the astronauts themselves are not entirely alone they are able to schedule downlinked communication with their families through video chat services. In fact they have been doing this practice long before we on Earth have been in lockdown since Covid-19 spread across the world. In this article for Nature James Picano, a space travel psychologist working for NASA explains that using countermeasures against social isolation is crucial to the astronaut selection process. By using a carefully planned daily routine you can adapt to cope with lockdown.
The important thing to do is to manage your expectations and pacing yourself correctly. The major issue is coping with that unpredictability in getting back to a normal routine, which can cause more anxiety for you. When astronaut Jessica Meir returned from her duty aboard the ISS in April this year, she returned to a world that required her to live in almost the exact same conditions that she lived through for 7 months. That was totally unexpected and it looked like her return to normal life on Earth was going to take a lot longer than normal.
Scientists and explorers in other fields also have to embrace social isolation as well. They often work as remote workers and I have gone through that myself on field trips for my environmental geology studies. But I wasn’t as isolated as a space explorer because I had access to food and provisions in small towns. During lockdown I had to deal with long distant medical treatment by my doctor to help me with my skin condition. I developed some eczema like symptoms on my waist and I had to get them seen to. But because of the lockdown the surgery practice was closed so they had to use a space travel inspired method to treat me.
The surgery had set up an online picture upload software for me to show pictures of my skin to my doctor so that he could analyse my condition. With this I got a diagnosis and he gave me his prognosis over the phone and sent a prescription to the chemist for me to pick up. This is the first time in my life that I have used a remote based medical service. It’s been used for years by remote workers that can’t get to doctors. Perhaps this could be used more widespread in the future for lockdown purposes.