Surviving isolation – tips from astronaut Helen Sharman
Dr Helen Sharman, CMG OBE CChem HonFRSC, the first British astronaut, is no stranger to isolation, uncertainty, and confined spaces. As many of us around the globe prepare for several weeks of lockdown, Helen shares with us her top tips for keeping spirits up, staying connected, and making the most of a difficult situation.
The Russian space station Mir in orbit in front of Earth.Picture: NASA
1. Keep communicating with loved ones and strangers too
"The Earth is a beautiful sight out of the window of a spacecraft but as I passed over parts of the planet where my friends and family lived, it was them I thought about. Astronauts miss being close to loved ones and meeting people face to face but contact by satellite phone and email helps. On Earth, we have many ways to communicate electronically and simply waving to neighbours or saying hello when we pass people two metres away in the street can cheer up the day."
Anatole Artsebarskiy and Helen Sharman on board Soyuz, 19 May 1991.Picture: Helen Sharman
2. Prioritise cooperation, respect and tolerance
"These qualities are vital in a spacecraft. Open communication helps us to understand each other’s frustrations and what makes us happy. And it helps if the grotty jobs are shared (tasks like compacting the solid toilet waste and changing filters are done on rotation in space)."
3. Use the opportunity to bond through hardship
"In orbit, our lives relied on everyone doing a good job. Sure, it was unnerving when we lost electrical power and tense while we performed a manual docking but nearly thirty years on, my crew and I are still friends. Hard times shared can be a truly bonding experience."
4. Take control of your circumstances in small ways
"Mission Control scheduled my days to the nearest minute in order to make efficient use of my time. I took pleasure in small elements over which I could exert some control, like what sort of fruit juice I drank and when I went to sleep. Now, we have been told to stay at home but we still have some control. And there is a huge purpose: to save lives."
Helen was the first Briton in space.Picture: Helen Sharman
5. Have a back-up plan
"I was not scared or anxious living with the risks of space travel because I had plans and back-up systems. I knew what to do in various situations like loss of air pressure, a fire or loss of radio contact. With COVID-19, it could be as simple as having a set of contacts in easy reach or a schedule for accessing the home computer."
6. Make yourself useful
"The scientific experiments I did in space made my mission feel useful. And I was grateful to be busy because that made me feel useful. If our work diminishes suddenly and our days become less busy, we can feel at a loss. However, if helpful, we can make our own daily schedules and we can still have targets and make achievements every day that are useful."
Helen now works with the Outreach team at Imperial, encouraging school children to take up science, maths and engineering.Picture: Helen Sharman
7. Make enjoyable plans for your free time
"One of the luxuries astronauts enjoy is scheduled free time; Earth-gazing, books and films figure highly. Now, COVID-19 means we can do some of the things we have always wanted to do but were previously too busy for. And we can plan something nice to look forward to because this will not last for ever."
8. Take time to appreciate nature
"I loved views of Earth. The sun reflecting off lakes, lights in cities appearing as we entered dusk and spectacular sunrises were just some of the entrancing sights. Now, we can take time to enjoy views like beautiful clouds, joyful birds and changes in sunlight. And on Earth, we can open a window and smell the fresh air!"
9. Learn to appreciate the value of community, rather than possessions
"In space, I did not once think about possessions. Back on Earth and confronted by materialism, I downgraded the relative value of 'stuff' in my life and I think COVID-19 will have a similar effect on many of us. Apart from environmental benefits, we will feel the change in society that will be more communal, more cohesive and generally nicer. When the pandemic is over, the world will be a better place than it has been for a long time."