If lockdown and social distance aren’t enough, how would you like to spend three weeks locked up with your colleagues in a research lab – 19 meters below sea level?
Or would you rather be left in a cave system, isolated from the outside world with no natural light, minimal privacy and limited equipment for hygiene and comfort?
Welcome to the world of astronaut training. Both NASA and the European Space Agency are conducting field studies in locations similar to working in space: a “dangerous and unfriendly” place, according to Nasa’s website. Risks include isolation and incarceration, while behavioral problems are “inevitable”.
While many are emerging from a second pandemic, severe social constraints remain. The performance techniques learned can help isolated workers who struggle with low mood, lack of interaction and fatigue.
Frank De Winne, the second Belgian in space and current ESA program manager for the International Space Station, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in November, offers reassurance. People can learn how to leave the things they love behind and focus on what they can do, he says.
Simple actions, such as feeling the wind on your face, can help reduce stress. In space you miss “a lot of things that you can still do here on earth. For example, open the window and get some fresh air, ”he says.
But what he missed most when he was the commander of the ISS in 2009 was the close contact with his family. “The only way you could talk to your kids, your wife and parents was on the phone and once a week you got a 15 minute session with your wife about the video. Today is a little better. . . but in the past it was much worse. “
Now, during the pandemic, he makes sure to talk to his 88-year-old mother regularly because she is “very trapped in her apartment”. “She’s there alone, so I call her every other day, if not every day,” he says. “We talk a lot more than before, so you have to focus on these positive moments instead of the negative ones.”
Astronauts know that their time in space is limited, and this knowledge can help deal with feelings of isolation while doing their dream job, taking pictures of Earth, conducting experiments, or making training videos.
But during the pandemic, the lack of a timetable can be psychologically difficult, even as hopes for vaccines grow. “This is what is difficult in the current environment, that we can’t really give perspective because there are so many unknowns: we don’t know when this will stop. We don’t know when we can all go back to normal life. “
In this situation, routines are important, in addition to regular exercise, even on the ISS astronauts train about two hours a day to avoid bone and muscle loss.
When people are physically active, they are less likely to become mentally exhausted, says Guy Champniss, a UK-based behavioral scientist.
“Routines are very important. Take care of these habits. Get out of the house. There are people who still walk to the train station and then back home as if they were on their way ”, says Mr Champniss.
These workers give themselves an important “decompression time”. The ‘commute’ can give them time to get into a new mindset. “That decompression time is probably more important now than it was when we went to the office every day,” said Mr. Champniss.
Living in tight conditions, astronauts can teach us to be considerate of others. “Try to be aware of your personal space. Not what it does to you, because you can live with it, but what it does to others ”, says Mr De Winne.
If someone on the ISS is untidy, their trash can float past their crew members, which can become ‘very quickly annoying’ as colleagues would have to clean up the mess.
“Maybe you can do this for a day or two, but not for six months,” he says.
Likewise, astronauts need to be careful when using tiny droplets of water for washing, as only one ball can float in an outlet, which wouldn’t be a “good combination,” he says, as it is difficult to separate them in space. divorce.
These kinds of actions can lead to conflicts, so reducing tension is essential. Try to understand the limits of the other and try to meet them, says Mr. De Winne.
As an ISS commander, he made sure that the crew always ate together as much as possible so that they could discuss what had happened during the day and make any operational adjustments. During meals, they took turns choosing which music to play in order to “create a group dynamic”.
Today, the remote work environment poses several challenges. Being away from the office has put an end to casual ‘water cooler’ meetings with colleagues, while online meetings can be less fluid than in real life, and exhausting.
Brainstorming sessions were part of the planning process that led to ESA and NASA formalizing an agreement in October to work together on the Artemis Gateway, a coalition to build a sustainable base in orbit for lunar exploration and deep space.
“The first meeting we had for this was in 2012. It took about eight years to prepare this program. The number of meetings we had where we said, ‘Can you do this? How will we resolve this difficult issue? “I couldn’t imagine that you could do this remotely,” says the ISS program manager.
But Mr. De Winne’s training has given him the tools to tackle the impossible – albeit at a slower pace. “If we hadn’t had the pandemic, we would probably be further than where we are today,” he says.