Michael López-Alegría, an experienced astronaut, shares insights on how astronauts handle isolation, drawing parallels with the experiences many faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Astronauts are no strangers to extended isolation, spending months in space far from home, loved ones, and the familiarity of Earth.
López-Alegría, with four NASA space flights under his belt (including one on the International Space Station and three on the Space Shuttle), has a NASA record for the most spacewalks (10 in total, spanning 67 hours).
His longest spaceflight lasted 215 days, making it the third-longest by any American astronaut. After retiring from NASA in 2012, he’s been working with space companies and serving on advisory boards and committees for both public and private space travel organizations.
In 2020, López-Alegría was honored as one of three inductees into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame. However, the pandemic delayed the ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. López-Alegría spoke with Esquire, discussing the challenges of being alone in space, managing conflicts within the isolation team, and appreciating the uniqueness of our planet Earth.
ESQ: Did you ever feel alone during your time in space, away from your loved ones?
MLA: We had various ways to stay connected, like using email. We even had a telephone to call almost anyone on Earth.
Throughout the day, we stayed in constant communication with the mission control team in Houston. So, it didn’t feel like we were alone up there.
In today’s world, you can think about people in Antarctica or those on nuclear submarines in the Navy who probably experience more isolation than we did in space. And let’s not forget, the view in space is quite spectacular.
ESQ: When you’re in such isolation, where does your mind go during moments of wandering?
MLA: The most peaceful times are when you gaze out the window at Earth. Often, you see clouds or the vast ocean, as these are abundant on our planet. You’re not necessarily seeking something specific; you’re watching the scenery unfold. Your thoughts meander much like they would during a quiet moment on Earth. It could be about your family, work, or even your favorite sports team like the Red Sox.
ESQ: During your time in space, what were you most excited about when returning to Earth?
MLA: I longed for the scents of Earth, like the smell of rain and freshly cut grass, things impossible to experience in space.
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I missed having a glass of wine with dinner and cooking, something I took pleasure in. The ordinary, routine aspects of life on Earth were what I missed the most.
ESQ: How did you prepare mentally to maintain a positive outlook as your time in space progressed?
MLA: Being an astronaut or on a submarine involves a crucial difference: you have a set return date. You know that on a specific day, you will de-orbit and return to Earth.
This situation is challenging because we don’t have a definite end date, and even when this phase concludes, life won’t immediately return to normal.
When you prepare for enduring hardship, especially isolation and separation, your mind and emotions undergo a subconscious process of readiness.
This subconscious preparation alleviates any anxiety about when this situation will end.
ESQ: During your time on the Space Station, how did you separate your living area from your workspace?
MLA: My expectation from the start, when I launched, was that I’d be doing everything—living, working, eating, playing, and exercising—in the same space.
We underwent hours of simulation before the launch, and over time, it just became the new normal. If you’re fortunate to work from home, the principle is the same.
It’s important not to blur the lines between work and relaxation. Even in a smaller space, you should try to designate a specific area for work, rather than working in your pajamas or from your bed with your laptop. Mentally partition the space you have, creating different areas for different activities.
A challenge of working from home is that there’s no clear stop time—the emails and calls keep coming. Hence, it’s vital to set aside personal time to engage in something you enjoy, like a hobby.
ESQ: Was there a set time to end your day on the Space Station?
MLA: Yes, we did. We followed an artificial clock since we orbited the Earth once every 90 minutes, experiencing a sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes. However, we couldn’t follow this rhythm for sleep, so we used Greenwich Mean Time to establish a waking hour.
We followed a routine that resembled a workday. We had pre-sleep activities, and after waking up, we had post-sleep activities. Post-sleep involved personal hygiene, getting dressed, having breakfast, and briefly connecting with the world.
Then, we’d have a conference with the ground, followed by work, lunch, more work, another ground conference, and pre-sleep activities, which included hygiene, dinner, and leisure.
ESQ: Many people are now feeling a newfound sense of danger around them. Did you experience that feeling in space?
MLA: Not really. The launch carries its risks, and there are potential dangers in space, such as the possibility of a meteoroid collision, which would be quite alarming.
However, NASA does a commendable job in understanding and minimizing these risks. The launch, landing, and spacewalks have their dangers, but our day-to-day operations inside the spacecraft were relatively safe.
ESQ: Many people are also mentioning feelings of boredom. Did you experience boredom in space?
MLA: No, there was never a dull moment in space. We followed our routine from Monday to Friday, working a half-day on Saturdays, and having Sundays off. Even during downtime, there was always something to engage with. Crew members stayed in touch with their friends and family, read books, observed Earth from the window to test their geography skills, or worked on home improvement tasks within the Space Station.
ESQ: How do you handle conflicts when you’re confined to a small group of individuals in space?
MLA: During the era when NASA primarily conducted Space Shuttle flights, which lasted around two weeks, conflict wasn’t a significant concern as the pace was intense.
However, during extended stays of six months or more on the Space Station, conflicts could arise. NASA developed a training syllabus to address this, and while I initially doubted its effectiveness, it did prove valuable.
Extensive training with crewmates allowed us to understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, triggers, and limits. It’s similar to the subconscious preparation I mentioned earlier.
What might irritate me in daily life on Earth might not bother me as much in space because I consciously remind myself that it’s a more intimate situation, and I choose not to let things get to me.
ESQ: Can you elaborate on what the NASA training syllabus entailed?
MLA: The training involved practical exercises designed to put us in uncomfortable situations, such as feeling hot, cold, hungry, or thirsty. These stressors were intended to lower the threshold before one displays unsportsmanlike behavior, so to speak.
Occasionally, behaviors of this nature would surface, and we would take a pause to discuss what occurred, identify coping mechanisms, understand the signs in our crewmates, and learn how to diffuse potential conflicts.
These techniques, which might seem like common sense, proved to be effective when demonstrated under the guidance of instructors. It made a significant impact.
ESQ: Could these techniques be helpful for someone dealing with tension in isolation?
MLA: Absolutely. If you notice conflicts brewing, take a moment to reflect. Consider the signs that led to the conflict and how it could have been prevented from escalating.
Analyze what specific actions or behaviors are causing irritation and find ways to minimize their impact on you. Reflecting on these aspects isn’t overly complicated.
ESQ: Can you recall a time in space when you felt particularly low, and how did you overcome it?
MLA: Astronauts are most affected when they feel they’ve let the team down—perhaps by making a mistake, forgetting a task, or taking too long to complete something. The strong sense of working within a team makes personal challenges feel manageable.
Even addressing personal issues is seen as contributing to the team’s well-being. What helps tremendously is the team’s reassurance: “It’s alright, we’re here for you. We’re moving forward, and everything is okay.” This support from team members is truly invaluable.