COVID-19: 7 Methods Astronauts Use to Cope with Long-Term Confinement

As social curbs are ramped up worldwide due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, we take a look at a few tips from the pros.
Chris Young
1, 2

As cases of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) continue to rise throughout most of the world, millions have been asked to stay inside their homes.

With big travel bans already in place between the US and EU, more likely to follow between Schengen countries, and people being confined indoors, a sense of isolation is likely pervading many households.

What methods can we use to help cope with the stress of confinement? As we sail these uncharted waters, we take a look at people who have gone one better and explored the final frontier. Here are a few methods astronauts use when they're feeling cramped in the wide expanse of space.


The harsh reality of space exploration

For all of the talk of space tourism, those at the frontline of space exploration are not always in for the most comfortable ride.

As Bill Paloski, Ph.D., Director of NASA’s Human Research Program, explains in a NASA blog post, early NASA scientists set guidelines for engineers to design very small, crowded, and often uncomfortable crew living quarters, out of necessity — a pressurized airtight cabin is essential when it comes to survival in space.

With NASA's Project Artemis, the space organization is aiming to get humans back to the Moon by 2024, before planning to go to Mars. One of the issues being researched for the Mars mission, in particular, is the problem of prolonged isolation and confinement.

The truth is that, no matter how well selected an astronaut is, cramped confinement in space for the months necessary to travel to Mars, will have an adverse effect that will only get worse with time. Add to this a strong likelihood for high-stress situations, and research into behavioral psychology is crucial for future space missions.

Thankfully, much of the research and technology that is made for space often finds its way back down to Earth. As NASA points out, its research into managing long-term confinement in cramped, stressful situations also has applications for the military on Earth, and even for an aging civilian population.

Some of the learning from that research into behavioral psychology might also be useful for those currently confined to their homes because of the CoViD-19 coronavirus. Below are 7 methods used by astronauts who don't have the luxury of breaking into a song from their balconies. 

1. Stay connected

NASA has yet to deal with a single behavioral emergency in space — that's impressive considering that NASA's Scott Kelly recently spent a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

However, as a 2015 report by NASA explains, the likelihood of astronauts developing behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders will increase the longer a mission lasts as well as the farther it gets away from Earth. While scientists aboard the ISS can currently make live video calls to their loved ones, explorers on Mars will have a wait of up to 20 to 40 minutes to send and receive a message.

The fact that NASA and other space organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA) are researching physics-defying methods for sending messages across 225 million km (140 million miles) of space between Earth and Mars, shows what an important role digital connectivity plays in our psychological wellbeing today.

2. Talk about your stressors

While astronauts are strongly vetted for their physical ability and scientific literacy, future space explorers going on longer missions will be increasingly tested on people skills like interpersonal tolerance, empathy, and their awareness of others' needs.

As Nick Kanas, a space psychology expert and an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, told NBC News, "crewmembers will need to be open to discussing psychological stressors with each other."

Essentially, astronauts will have to show a strong aptitude for communication and for understanding the social dynamics of the entire crew on their missions — skills that will benefit anyone back on Earth whether they are in confinement or not.

3. Have a virtual vacation

Countless stay-at-home citizens are no doubt already hitting their Netflix accounts hard this week — one ambitious petition in Spain has asked the streaming service to release the new season of Casa de Papel, known as Money Heist in English, early to help people pass the time.

NASA knows the importance of movies for escapism. The showing of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, as well as other movies on a projector on the ISS, is a testament to that.

COVID-19: 7 Methods Astronauts Use to Cope with Long-Term Confinement
Astronauts on the ISS watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Source: @Astro_Sabot/Twitter

But there are other mediums that might be even more effective for mentally transporting people away from their surroundings. NASA, for example, has granted funding to scientist Peggy Wu, from research company SIFT, to develop and study virtual reality (VR) worlds that can aid the psychology of astronauts on long space missions.

The VR program, called ANSIBLE, allows users to explore art galleries, museums, and environments similar to Earth, including nature preserves. On Earth today, current-gen VR headsets, as well as videogames, might be the closest substitute.

4. Hibernate the time away

In 2016, NASA funded research into a form of suspended animation that's similar to what we see in sci-fi films where entire crews are put into a cryogenic sleep during long space missions. The company behind it, SpaceWorks, is developing a way of putting astronauts into a controlled state of advanced hypothermia in order to allow them to hibernate during the long journey to Mars.

COVID-19: 7 Methods Astronauts Use to Cope with Long-Term Confinement
Source: J. Bradford/NASA

While we're not seriously suggesting you might have this type of technology at home, it does highlight the importance of energy conservation and, also, sleep when in confinement.

Sleep is incredibly important for anyone's mental health, let alone someone in a small confined cabin under the effects of microgravity. As this post by NASA shows, optimizing sleeping patterns is critical for the wellbeing of the crew and for the mission.

5. Play a musical instrument

Playing a musical instrument can be an incredibly calming experience — that's if you're not practicing scales for an upcoming grade exam.

Several psychological studies highlight the positive effects of playing an instrument. One study, published by the American Psychological Association, shows that playing an instrument from a young age keeps the mind sharp as we get older.

COVID-19: 7 Methods Astronauts Use to Cope with Long-Term Confinement
Astronaut Catherine Coleman playing the flute aboard the ISS, Source: ESA

"Research shows that making music can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce stress, and lessen anxiety and depression," Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, told LiveScience.

"There is also increasing evidence that making music enhances the immunological response, which enables us to fight viruses," she explained. 


It's little wonder then that astronauts have a long history of playing instruments in space, and that many people in confinement, due to the CoViD-19 outbreak, are taking to their balconies with instruments — science aside, it is also simply a heartwarming community experience that allows humans to bond while keeping their distance.

6. Cultivate soil to stay grounded

When astronaut Scott Kelly came back from having spent a year aboard the ISS, he was asked what things he missed the most from Earth. Unsurprisingly, he said he missed the people closest to him. As NASA explains, however, astronauts also tend to miss Earth in a sensory way — they miss the sight of a sunny day, the smell of grass, the feel of their feet touching the ground.

The cultivation of plants and vegetables has well-documented therapeutic benefits. That's why the potted plant is such a valuable resource when in confinement — of course, growing plants in space has its own specific set of challenges.

7. Training and planning ahead

As NASA senior operational psychologist Dr. Jim Picano points out“the training that astronauts receive shapes their confidence in the procedures and equipment they have, to deal with spaceflight commands as well as emergencies. Rehearsing these over and over again…brings a sense of preparation that allows them to believe they can influence and change their circumstances for the better.”

It is this type of preparation that helped astronaut Luca Parmitano remain calm when he was doing a spacewalk outside the ISS and his helmet suddenly malfunctioned, reducing his visibility and gradually filling his helmet with water.

COVID-19: 7 Methods Astronauts Use to Cope with Long-Term Confinement
Luca Parmitano during a spacewalk in 2019, Source: NASA

While the vast majority of people haven't been put through the rigors of astronaut training, NASA's necessary approach to space training also highlights the importance of planning ahead.

Those in confinement today might want to have a plan for how they will ration their food over the next few weeks, or what they will do to stave away the boredom and keep healthy. Of course, it goes without saying that exercise should form a big part of these plans. 

While human trials for a COVID-19 vaccine have already started, we might be in this for the long haul. Though astronauts might have the most professional well-researched advice for those in confinement, civilians in some of the countries worst affected by the coronavirus disease are also giving some pretty stellar pointers on how to pass the time.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board