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.
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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.
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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.”