“I only interacted in person with 11 other humans over the course of almost a year,” Koch told me. “Just seeing [new people] immediately when I came out of the capsule was definitely shocking.”
On the day Koch landed in early February, the Houston Chronicle, NASA Mission Control’s hometown paper, ran a picture of her on the front page. Below it was an article reporting that, although there were no confirmed cases in Texas, business owners were worried about the effects of the new coronavirus.
Koch got a taste of normal life for a few weeks before public-health experts advised millions of Americans to stay indoors and the United States became, as of yesterday, the country with the world’s most reported coronavirus cases. Now she has found herself cooped up again, this time in her home in Galveston, Texas. Koch has returned to a uniquely anxious time on Earth, but she is unusually well prepared for the situation: Astronauts spend six months or longer away from their loved ones, living and working on a station about the size of a six-bedroom house, with personal quarters the size of phone booths, interacting with the same handful of people, orbit after orbit. It’s not entirely unlike social distancing.
This week, as more Americans settled in at home, sometimes under government orders, astronauts have shared some advice online on how to deal with their newfound isolation. Scott Kelly, who spent 340 consecutive days on the ISS, suggests maintaining a busy schedule. Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut best known for his rendition of “Space Oddity,” recommends learning a new skill. Koch endorses videochatting with friends during a shared activity; when she was in space, she ran on the space station’s treadmill while her friends pounded the pavement more than 200 miles below.
But although Koch and her colleagues might provide sensible tips for staying sane in this new version of life, there’s a big difference between astronauts and the rest of us: They signed up for their experience. We didn’t.
The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.
“In many ways, what we’re being asked to do is much harder than what astronauts have to do,” says Raphael Rose, a psychologist and the associate director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at UCLA, whose research includes stress-management techniques for astronauts.
Prior to the past several weeks, astronauts were not faced with the particular stressors brought on by COVID-19, ranging from sickness to the sudden loss of their jobs. Even if they do stay employed, earthbound humans who are working from home might have a tougher work environment than space travelers do. Kelly wrote in The New York Times of his experience in space, “When I went to sleep, I was at work. When I woke up, I was still at work.” But astronauts don’t have their toddlers or teenagers on the ISS with them hogging the Wi-Fi and interrupting meetings.
At mission control, there’s a whole cadre of personnel responsible for keeping astronauts happy and healthy. If something goes wrong, astronauts know exactly whom to call. For many Americans living through the COVID-19 crisis, that’s not the case. President Donald Trump told the country earlier this month that anyone who wanted a test for the virus could get one, but tests are still in desperately short supply. People concerned that they have COVID-19 symptoms are waiting in line at hospitals for hours only to be turned away at the end of the day.
The comfort of knowing that mission control is looking out for you—that anyone, in fact, is in control—is something that many Americans might welcome right now. That support can help reduce stress, says Sonja Schmer-Galunder, a social anthropologist at the research firm Smart Information Flow Technologies who studies group behavior particularly in astronaut missions. A sense of unity helps too; it’s why we find videos of Italians singing to one another from their balconies, or Atlanta residents applauding medical workers during their shift changes, soothing. “Everybody’s waiting for our leaders to decide for us how our lives are going to continue,” Schmer-Galunder says. “While we are waiting and while we experience this stress together, it would be even more important to have leadership that communicates well to us that you are not alone, and we are all in this together.”
Expert support isn’t available only while astronauts are in orbit. Before they leave Earth, space travelers are specifically trained to live in confined spaces for long periods of time. “The environment demands that they be really good at those things, because they depend on one another to survive,” says Jim Picano, a psychologist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Before launch, psychologists prep astronauts on “expeditionary behavior,” which ranges from communication and teamwork skills to self-care and tips for just plain getting along. They talk to astronauts every two weeks once they’re on the ISS, and encourage them to journal.
And when astronauts return to Earth, psychologists help them settle back into normal life. Picano literally sits astronauts down and tells them that things aren’t the same as when they left—their children have grown, their spouses might have changed—and tells them to take it easy. His team meets with astronauts periodically for about a month and a half after landing, to check up on their well-being.
When Americans reach the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, stepping into what could seem like an alien reality, the change might feel as drastic as plunging through the atmosphere and emerging from a capsule. A team of psychologists worrying after us would be a welcome crutch.
When Koch reentered the world after her long period of isolation, she said she felt bombarded with all kinds of stimuli after nearly a year of what she calls “sensory underload.” It took some time to adjust to new sights, sounds, smells, even tastes—astronaut food is, um, a little different—and to remember how to act like a regular, earthbound person. “The first time I went out to a restaurant, just listening to my own voice trying to order my food like a normal person, I felt very aware and conscious of all of the words I was choosing, the way I interacted with the waiter, because I had just become so accustomed to NASA speak and interacting with a team of people over the radio,” she said. Our own reentry is likely to be similarly disorienting: After months of Zoom meetings and virtual happy hours, it might be, at least in the first few moments, a sensory shock to see so many people in three dimensions.
Of course, for returning astronauts, seeing a sea of new faces is a joy. For some of us, that might not be the case. It’s probably not going to be easy to jump into crowds after spending months trying to avoid them. “For some people, crowds signal danger, particularly for people who are frightened of being infected,” says Steven Taylor, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Psychology of Pandemics. In general, that’s not a fear shared by space travelers. But for us, it’s one that could last beyond the extent of the pandemic.