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Lessons of Isolation from an Astronaut

May 7, 2020 by Jose Hernandez2
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Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, millions around the world are adjusting to a new normal of social distancing and self-isolation. The 24-hour cycle of information about the health, economic and social impacts of the virus can cause overwhelming levels of anxiety and stress. While many are forced to recalibrate their lives in the midst of drastic changes and uncertainty, it is important to proactively prepare both physically and mentally. Here are my lessons of isolation.

As a NASA astronaut, I have trained underwater for 15 continuous days on a NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission, experienced quarantine for two weeks before my space mission and participated on a 14-day space mission to the International Space Station via the Space Shuttle Discovery. It is this experience of living in confined spaces that has allowed me to come up with five easy ways you can adapt to self and small group isolation, NASA astronaut style.

1. Positive Attitude while in isolation

When finding yourself in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, one should always try and find a silver lining. During our 18-month STS-128 training program for our mission aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, the mission requirements and subsequent training constantly changed, creating extra work and frustration. Upon voicing a mild protest, I clearly remember the words of my Commander CJ Sturckow saying, “Let it go Tumor, you have the privilege of going to Space.” Though I never asked who Tumor was, his statement was so true. One should always look at the glass half full not half empty. Today we have the privilege of spending extra time with our spouse and other close loved ones who would normally be either out of town, working and/or college.

2. Communicate

Being in closed and confined spaces can quickly make your patience barometer more sensitive. So using this time to improve your communication skills will benefit all. However, you talking is only half of the process because the skill of listening is equally important. Repeating back what the other party said helps me understand their request better and helps the requester listen to what they said, making it much easier for both to recognize unreasonable requests. This helps avoid missing an important piece of time sensitive information.

I learned this technique at NASA while training as the flight engineer in our mission. This meant that I sat in the middle of our Commander and Pilot, backing them up on critical switch throws. As we returned from our mission to Edwards Air Force base, I reminded our pilot, Kevin Ford, per procedures to “check landing gear extension Iso Valve – Open.” He immediately repeated, “Landing gear extension Iso, thank you Jose, that valve is open”. This simple feedback allowed me to listen to what I told Kevin and cross check with the procedures to ensure I had given him an accurate procedure. Not only is it very important in an environment where the stakes are high, but it is also a useful technique to incorporate into our style of communication. It greatly reduces misunderstandings and/or flush out unreasonable requests, thus reducing conflict.

3. Create a Schedule

It is important to treat your day at home as if it was a work day, especially for those of us lucky enough to be allowed to work from home. In space, each astronaut would have a schedule that accounted for as little as a 5-minute task. This would ensure we kept the mission on track and on schedule. Creating such a schedule at home allows you to track your own activities and upon completion, claim small victories.

Even if you are just at home and do not work from home, the schedule can include activities such as how long will you read your new favorite book for that day, when will you have an activity with one or more of your kids, what day and time will you mow the lawn, how long will you work on organizing the garage, or when will you try out that new recipe you have always craved. My wife has been remodeling our bedroom and after she painted the room, before the COVID-19 outbreak. I have since jumped in and installed new curtains, a chandelier and television. The new look is not really my style, but like the old saying goes, happy wife, happy life!

4. Bond with the Family

If this situation has given us anything, it is the gift of time to spend with our loved ones. Four of my five kids are now at home and my wife and I could not be any happier. You can never bring back time, so use these precious moments to create lifetime memories with your loved ones. Play board games, cook with different members of your family or do silly activities. I am participating in an activity with my middle child, Vanessa, and doing cameo appearances on her TikTok. They are loads of fun though I know it is going to come to haunt me when I decide to run for Congress. For your enjoyment you can view these on her TikTok at @Vanessa_ade. This week I will start some agricultural chores with my other daughter Marisol and youngest son Antonio, enjoying fresh air while practicing social distancing.

5. Set Goals

This is probably the best time for you to sit down and write down the goals you have had but never have had the time to do them. Perhaps now is a good time to move them to the front of your list. For example, learn to play that new instrument you always wanted to play. I am certain you can find beginning and intermediate courses on-line on just about any musical instrument. You can go outside and get that fresh and take a long walk, set exercise goals and so long as you practice social distancing you can go on a run with your dog. For entertainment have a binge watching session or two. Right now I’m watching the first three seasons of the Ozarks on Netflix, which is something I had wanted to do for a while.

I realize that following the above advice is not a solution for all problems or concerns as I still have concerns. For example, I mentioned that four of my five kids are at home and, in my mind, safe with their parents. However, there is a fifth child, Julio, the oldest, who is at Purdue working on his PhD. Though his school is also closed, he decided to stay in West Lafayette, Indiana to work out of his apartment on his research and make progress on his dissertation. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Aerospace Engineering and his anxiousness to finish his education drives his decision to isolate himself much to the concern of mom and dad. Thank goodness for Facetime and Skype that allow us to stay in daily, but more importantly, visual contact with him.

6. Final Thoughts on Lessons of Isolation

When I left NASA we decided to come back to the town where I grew up in Stockton, CA. This decision was driven in part with our desire to stay in close contact with my aging parents, so that my kids could reconnect with grandpa and grandma. Moving back allowed for this but now isolating ourselves, for their own protection, creates concern. What I have found useful is planning with them, over the phone and now that Spring has arrived, our future barbecues, or carne asadas as we call them, at their place because grandpa and grandma’s house has and always will be the family headquarters.

Finally, I want to thank all the caregivers, including my niece Crystal, and the entire medical community for risking their lives and working tireless around the clock to help hundreds of thousands of people. Much like I trusted NASA-Houston, to bring us home safely from space, I too trust the medical community to help us through this pandemic and ultimately defeat it. We must all do our part, stay home, read books, and CDC guidelines. Trust me, we will get through this, together.

Jose M. Hernandez
Former NASA Astronaut


2 comments

  • Esmeralda Chapa

    May 8, 2020 at 6:09 am

    I’m always on the lookout for credible sources that will support the instruction I give to the high school students I teach. This practical advice on how to live in isolation will help me and them. Working from home has doubled my workload. It’s been almost 2 months. I needed to read this. And I’ll post it to the digital classroom. Next time we meet I hope my students and I will read it together. Thank you.

    Reply

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