Bringing astronaut skills down to Earth to handle isolation

ASU’s Global Explorer in Residence Cady Coleman offers tips to weather social distancing

woman floating in a space shuttle

As the global coronavirus pandemic stretches on, roughly half the world is now under some form of lockdown to slow the spread of the virus. Days are marked by uncertainty, and we’re alternately irritable, anxious, lonely, depressed and restless. While we’re busy avoiding the novel coronavirus, we’re all catching a little cabin fever.

Although this strange season has highlighted for many of us how much we took our normal active and social lives for granted, there are others whose day-to-day lives gave them the perfect training ground to handle the challenges of social distancing we all face today. Cady Coleman is one of them.

A NASA astronaut, scientist and retired U.S. Air Force colonel, she has spent a cumulative 180 days and four hours in space. Her time was split among two Space Shuttle missions and almost six months aboard the International Space Station during Expeditions 26 and 27. She also spent 11 days living and working in the Aquarius Reef Base underwater laboratory and six weeks living in a tent in Antarctica before her journey to the ISS.

She joined the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration’s Interplanetary Initiative as its Global Explorer in Residence in 2019 and has some tips for how to make the most of your time in isolation. 

Lend support from afar

Many people across the world are currently unable to visit friends and family, whether they’re separated by thousands of miles or just a few blocks. Coleman can relate — even before she was aboard the ISS, 250 miles above anyone on Earth, she spent a good deal of time away from loved ones. Coleman’s career with NASA and the Air Force has separated her from her family for about a third of her life. In that time, she’s become something of an expert at maintaining connections from a distance.

“I learned a lot of my coping skills of how to be present without being there,” said Coleman.

Recurring activities can serve as important touchstones to stay connected with people from afar. Playing games with friends, holding a weekly happy hour over Zoom or shouldering some teaching activities for parents can all allow you to be present without actually being there. 

When she trained in Star City, Russia, in preparation for flying on a Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS, she was present for her family by doing homework with her son remotely.

“I used to take pictures of his math book before I would leave on a trip,” she said. “Then he would send me his assignments and we would do math together. It was one of the things that I could do to lighten my husband’s load and give him a few sane moments.”

Cady Coleman talks to family via a satellite phone shortly after landing in the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft in Kazakhstan on May 24, 2011. Photo courtesy of Cady Coleman 

To stay active, hold yourself accountable and use what’s available

With gyms temporarily shuttering and fitness classes cancelled, it can be hard to maintain motivation to exercise. Because inactivity can cost astronauts bone and muscle, motivation was never a problem for Coleman when she was aboard the ISS.

“It's something you notice within a day or two,” she said. “Up there, if you don't exercise, it's awful. It hurts and nothing feels right.”

But it wasn’t just the immediate consequences that kept Coleman working out for the requisite two hours a day, six days a week. She jokes that it is easy to exercise when hundreds of people around the world know if you got your workout in or not.

That accountability factor is something she’s bringing to her routine today. Since her gym is closed, she gets a workout via text from a local fitness instructor a few days a week, and she texts back when she finishes it.

“So her business is still going and I get the accountability I need,” said Coleman. “Make a pact with somebody. Even if you can't really meet them now, you can meet them virtually and say, ‘Now we're going to do this all together.’”

Even if you don’t have the equipment you usually use, Coleman advises everyone to use something we all have access to — our bodies. When she was selected to go to the ISS, she had 47 days before an important evaluation in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. This 6-million-gallon pool contains replicas of ISS modules and is where astronauts train before heading to space.

“The trainers said, ’Whenever you’re back here in the U.S., you can come to the gym,'” she recalled. “And I said, ‘No, no, no. I have these 47 days.’”

She used that time to its fullest, doing pushups, burpees, planks and other body weight exercises in airports, hotels and wherever else when she had a moment. At the end of it, she passed her evaluation and qualified as a member of the ISS spacewalking team.

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“I'm not a fitness expert, but there's a lot of body weight things you can do,” she said. “I think just picking three exercises and saying, ‘I'm going to do these once a day,’ and then in a couple of days, do them twice a day. Don't think that because you can't go to the gym that you can't actually do some significant things.”

Structure your day — but make time for yourself

With so many people working remotely, it’s easy for the line between office time and personal time to become blurred. The same can be true of astronauts, considering their working space is the same as their living space.

To mitigate this, Coleman urges making a schedule, but allowing for flexibility — a lesson she learned while on the ISS. Coleman says she often found herself waiting until she’d completed all her work for the day until she’d take some time for herself.

“I would usually work through all of my breaks and lunch, and wait until late at night to talk to family or play my flute, after we're supposed to be in bed,” she recalled.

Toward the end of her 159 days in space, she started interspersing those things for herself throughout her workday. This strategy turned out to work better for her, and she thinks it might work well for people struggling with separating work and personal time.

She advises people to make lists of different “food groups” — housework such as cleaning out the cupboards or attic, office work that needs to be accomplished, as well as leisure activities like reading or cooking and restorative activities such as going for a walk or playing music. 

“From those couple of lists, take one from every ‘food group’ and make sure you do one during the day,” she said. “Space it out where you do a little in the morning and a little later in the evening.”

Find a creative outlet and share it

There’s no better time to stretch your creative muscles than when you’re cooped up inside. Astronauts know this better than most, even though they don’t get a great deal of free time aboard the ISS.

Scott Kelly, who commanded the ISS on Expeditions 26, 45 and 46, passed the time by taking photos of the Earth’s surface.

“He loved taking pictures of the Earth, really close up ones where you just see some piece and you wonder what it is,” said Coleman. 

Nicole Stott, who served as flight engineer on ISS Expeditions 20 and 21, painted during her time in space. She was the first person to use watercolors in space. 

Karen Nyberg, whom Coleman describes as an extraordinary crafter, spent her few moments of free time quilting and sewing during ISS Expeditions 36 and 37. Nyberg served as flight engineer on both missions, and once made a stuffed dinosaur from scraps of food-packaging liners and a T-shirt. 

Coleman brought her flute with her aboard the ISS, and played a duet with musician Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight in 2011.

For Coleman, the importance of these pastimes is less about what they do for the astronaut than their effect on the world. Though most of us don’t have the same platform and level of influence as an astronaut, whatever creativity we can muster right now may bring others joy in unexpected ways. 

“The reason to do these kinds of things is that it actually kind of increases the number of ripples that you can make,” said Coleman. “Now that I’m home, I spend time coaching people to recognize: What is the opportunity that you alone see that can make some ripples and help someone else?”

Cady Coleman poses with Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot developed by NASA and General Motors to study how robots work alongside humans in space. Robonaut 2 arrived on the ISS in February 2011. Photo courtesy of Cady Coleman

Remember the mission and look for opportunities

Coleman says that astronauts have the luxury of never losing sight of their mission. They live and breathe it every moment they spend in space. 

Right now, our global mission is to limit the spread of this virus and prevent our health care systems from becoming overwhelmed. We can do this by staying home, socially distancing ourselves and accepting a lot of different limitations on our lives for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to lose sight of that purpose, says Coleman.

“Focusing on the mission of keeping each other safe during this pandemic helps me,” she said. “When I’m wishing that I didn’t have to stay at home, or I don’t particularly feel like washing my hands again, I realize that every one of our actions counts in accomplishing today’s imperative mission, even when they seem small.”

In space, the mission comes first. Coleman says if she was given the opportunity, she would’ve stayed on the ISS for another six months in a heartbeat: "First, because we are doing experiments that can’t be done on Earth, and they help us understand important problems here at home, as well as helping us get ready to go to the moon and Mars. I also just loved that it is a magical place where everything is different.

“It may not feel as magical for us right now on the ground,” she added. “But the changing world brings different possibilities than we had before. I think it was Churchill who said, ‘Never waste a crisis.’ Maybe we should think about the mission this way: What else can we get done?” 

She notes that the pandemic has highlighted problems that weren’t as visible before, such as equity of care and how dependent some children are on school lunch programs. 

“Because the focus has changed, our ability to align ourselves together has changed,” she said. “The result: a whole new world of emerging solutions, made possible by these new connections between people of different talents, insights and backgrounds. I love that together, we are stronger.” 

Top photo: Cady Coleman aboard the International Space Station during Expedition 26. Coleman spent nearly six months aboard the ISS. Photo courtesy of Cady Coleman

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