If blocking and social distance aren’t a challenge enough, how would you like to be confined in a research lab with your colleagues for three weeks – 19 meters under the sea?
Or perhaps you’d rather be left in a cave system, isolated from the outside world with no natural light, minimal privacy, and limited hygiene and comfort equipment?
Welcome to the world of astronaut training. Both NASA and the European Space Agency conduct field studies in places with similarities to working in space: a “dangerous and hostile” place, according to the NASA website. Risks include isolation and imprisonment, while behavioral problems are “inevitable”.
Although many are emerging from a second blockade pandemic, severe social restrictions remain. The performance techniques taught could help lone workers who are struggling with a drop in mood, a 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 to leave behind the things they love to do and focus on what they can do, he says.
Simple actions, like feeling the wind on your face, can help reduce stress. In space, you are missing “many 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 close contact with his family. “The only way you could talk to your kids, your wife and your parents was through a phone and once a week you had a 15 minute session with your wife in the video. Today it’s a little better. . . but in the past it was much worse. “
Now, in the pandemic, she makes sure she talks regularly with her 88-year-old mother because she is “very confined to her apartment.” “She sits there alone, so I call her every other day, if not every day,” he says. “We talk a lot more than before, so you need to focus on these positive moments rather than the negative ones.”
Astronauts know their time in space is limited, and this knowledge can help manage any feelings of isolation as they carry out their dream job, take photos of the earth, perform experiments or make training videos.
But in the pandemic, the absence of a time frame can be psychologically difficult, even as vaccine hopes rise. “This is what is difficult in the current context that we cannot really give perspective to because there are so many unknowns: we don’t know when it will end. We don’t know when we will be able to live our normal lives again. “
In this situation, routine is important as well as getting regular exercise, even on the ISS, astronauts exercise about two hours a day to prevent bone and muscle loss.
If people are physically active, they are less likely to become mentally exhausted, says Guy Champniss, a UK-based behavioral scientist.
“Routines are key. Practice these habits. Go out of home. There are people who keep walking to the train station and then back home as if they were commuting, “says Mr. Champniss.
These workers are giving themselves significant “decompression time”. Commuting can give them time to enter a new mindset. “That decompression time is probably more critical now than it was when we went to the office every day,” says Champniss.
If we live in cramped conditions, astronauts can teach us to consider others. “Try to be aware of your personal space. Not what it does for you, because you can live with it, but what it does for others, “says Mr. De Winne.
On the ISS, if someone is in a mess, the garbage could float past their teammates, which could “get annoying very quickly,” as co-workers would be left to clean up the mess.
“Maybe you can do it for a day or two, but not for six months,” he says.
Likewise, astronauts need to be careful when using tiny droplets of water to wash themselves as a single globule could float in an electrical outlet, which would not be a “good combination,” he says, as it’s hard to separate them in space.
Actions like this could create conflict, so reducing tension is key. Try to understand the other person’s boundaries and try to fit them, says Mr. De Winne.
As commander of the ISS, he made sure the crew always ate as much together as possible so that they could discuss what had happened during the day and make any operational changes. At mealtimes, they took turns choosing which music to play, to “create a group dynamic”.
Today, the remote working environment poses several challenges. The distance from the office has put an end to casual and fortuitous “water cooler” encounters with colleagues, while online meetings can be less fluid than in real life and exhausting.
The brainstorming sessions were part of the planning process that led ESA and NASA to formalize an agreement in October to collaborate on the Artemis Gateway, a coalition to build a sustainable base in orbit around the moon for lunar exploration and of 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’ve had where we’ve said, ‘Can you do this? How will we solve this difficult problem? I couldn’t imagine you could do this in a remote environment, ”says the ISS program manager.
But Mr. De Winne’s training gave him the tools to tackle the impossible, albeit at a slower pace. “If we hadn’t had the pandemic, we would probably be further ahead than where we are today,” he says.