NASA’s isolation experts: Lockdown lessons from space

Nature
The mission control room of the JPL Space Flight Operations Facility

NASA’s staff members have had experience operating from home since long before the coronavirus pandemic hit.Credit: David McNew/Getty

Scott Bolton knows a thing or two about distance. He is the principal investigator of NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, and at the best of times his experiment is more than 500 million kilometres away, orbiting a gas giant in the middle of our Solar System. Even when travelling at the speed of light, messages and data usually take around 45 minutes to get to and from the spacecraft — bringing new meaning to the idea of working remotely.

Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolton and his team are even farther away. Like many scientists around the world, they are working from home, with all the distractions and frustrations that entails: interruptions from children and pets, occasionally uncooperative video-conferencing software and the need to develop alternative routines.

The agency invests a great deal of effort and research into how to work across vast distances, how to help its people to deal with isolation and loneliness and how to keep them working at the top of their game under the most challenging circumstances. So, what lessons might Earthbound (and housebound) scientists take from them?

Back to isolation

NASA has a lot of experience dealing with the stress caused by isolation, says James Picano, an operational psychologist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He is responsible for the psychological training of astronauts.

“It’s a hazard that astronauts face being on the space station, physically distant from Earth, their family and friends, and our culture,” he says. “The risk of social isolation is one of the things that we’re concerned about.”

Countermeasures against social isolation begin with selection, by finding people who will be able to successfully adapt to the conditions of a space mission. A carefully planned and managed daily routine, and plenty of opportunities to connect with family on Earth through private video conferences help. Crucially, these people volunteered for the job — and knew what to expect. That’s not the case for the rest of us, and makes the situation we face much harder to adapt to.

“None of us chose this, we didn’t volunteer,” says Picano. “For some people, it will be very difficult, moreso than for an astronaut who has been carefully selected and trained.”

An important tool for dealing with isolation is managing your expectations and pacing yourself both in work and in life, says Picano. But the lack of any clarity about when life will be able to return to normal makes isolation much harder to deal with. “The unpredictability causes more anxiety, and makes pacing more difficult,” he says.

That unpredictability is affecting astronauts, too. They launched knowing that their isolation had a specific end point, and could plan accordingly. Now, they must come to terms with the fact that isolation will continue even after they return.

“They’re going from one kind of environment of isolation to another,” says Picano. “They’re not coming back to the same world they left.”

Astronaut Jessica Meir, who arrived on the International Space Station (ISS) last September, has acknowledged how the outbreak has disrupted her plans. Speaking to Nature in a teleconference from the station before she returned to Earth on 17 April, she said that watching the outbreak unfold from space has been surreal, and it has complicated her return.

“It will be very difficult for me to not be able to give hugs to my family and friends after being up here for seven months,” she says. “I think I will actually feel more isolated on the Earth than I did up here.”

Adapting to remote work

Juno’s goal is to answer puzzling questions left unanswered by earlier missions, such as why the Galileo probe found that Jupiter’s atmosphere was not as well-mixed as expected. It will also help us to learn about the early Solar System by understanding how Jupiter formed, and how gas giants follow a different path from stars at the earliest stages of Solar System formation. Once every 53 days, the spacecraft skims low over the planet’s pole to collect data on its magnetosphere, deep atmosphere and internal structure.

“There’s science being done every day, but the most critical is the one day each orbit that we’re closest to Jupiter, because we’re in a very dangerous zone,” says Bolton. “When you get close to Jupiter, you’re going through the throat of hell. It’s the highest radiation that any NASA spacecraft has ever encountered.”

It’s on these days that the engineers and scientists sit on the edge of their seats, combing through data to verify that the spacecraft is healthy and working properly. The engineers usually gather in their mission-control rooms at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and at Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colorado. But on 10 April, the team completed Juno’s 25th orbit, with everyone working from home. It came off without a hitch.

That’s at least in part owing to lots of practise and advance planning. The spacecraft arrived at Jupiter in 2016, so the team has had several years to develop smooth operations. Generally, there are only a handful of people actually in the control room under normal circumstances, but “we never imagined working everything from home”, says Bolton.

That transition to working from home has been smooth, says Ed Hirst, Juno’s project manager at the JPL. “All the tools used to monitor the craft and do operations are largely available from home through secure networks,” he says. “There’s not going to be anyone in the control centres.”

The biggest hurdle for the Juno team is the same that everyone faces while working from home: the loss of real face-to-face contact. “What’s missing is the ability to lean over and talk to someone right away,” says Hirst.

The science team is spread across the world, so its members were already used to video-conference meetings. But once every few months, the team meets in person for about a week to discuss scientific results and operations plans. For their most recent meeting, they had to convene virtually — with around 100 people on the call over several days in mid-April. “We’ve never had to meet virtually with that many team members before,” says Bolton.

Besides dealing with the chaotic nature of a video conference that large, participants will miss out on the often-productive discussions that spring up around the margins of the meeting, says Bolton. “I want to see if we can somehow capture the value of those coffee-break discussions,” he says.

And there is the need to keep everyone safe and healthy as they deal with family issues and the stress, anxiety and psychological impact of the pandemic and prolonged isolation. “That’s all blended into trying to do our jobs,” says Bolton.

Extra measures

For astronauts just starting their mission, things are very different.

“It feels different to be leaving Earth amidst a global crisis,” astronaut Chris Cassidy said in the teleconference, after arriving on the ISS last month. “We knew as a crew that we would be in quarantine for these exact weeks a year ago, but we didn’t know the rest of the world was going to join us.”

NASA already has strict pre-flight quarantine procedures to ensure that no pathogens are inadvertently brought to the space station. Astronauts spend a standard two weeks in quarantine before leaving Earth via the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan. They have no direct contact with anyone unless they have been pre-cleared by NASA flight surgeons. But as the scope of the pandemic became clear, things were tightened up even further, Cassidy told Nature.

From the first week in March, he and the rest of his crew had no contact with anyone not involved in the mission — and those people were under the same quarantine as the astronauts. None of the usual visits to Baikonur by officials from cooperating space agencies or businesses were allowed. Even the pre-launch press conference, which is usually held with the astronauts separated from the reporters by glass, was done through video conference.

“There’s almost 0% chance for our crew [to be infected],” he says.

Picano says the best way to deal with the adversity of the pandemic is to try to remain flexible and adaptable, and to try to maintain, as much as possible, the structure of work and your productivity. Astronauts feel best when they are engaged in and contributing to their mission, no matter what adversity they are facing.

“I expect that will also be true for other scientists who are able to continue their work,” says Picano.

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