Astronauts are used to being confined for many days. So, Helen Sharman, the first British woman in space, shares what she learned.
In May 1991, chemist Helen Sharman became the first and only British citizen to go into space. She went to the Russian space station Mir to conduct scientific research.
The mission only lasted eight days, but Sharman prepared for more than a year for that moment. Today she works at Imperial College London, England, and shared some of the things she learned during her space mission on dealing with isolation and confinement.
In an interview with the institution’s website, she said that in space they have shelter, food, and crewmates for company, but the astronauts miss their friends and family. In times of social distancing due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worth checking out what the ex-astronaut has to say.
1. “We need to understand each other’s frustrations”
Helen advises that living in a confined space with others requires respect and tolerance. As astronauts do not select the crew, knowing how to cooperate is an important feature to be chosen. And communication is essential: we need to understand not only the frustrations of the other, but also what bothers us and what helps us to relax.
2. “Hard times shared can be a truly bonding experience”
“At the time of my space flight (…) My task was to operate a periscopic camera so that the commander could see where he was going. If we missed the space station by a mile, we could have a second attempt at docking but if we missed the docking port by a few centimetres, we could damage our spacecraft and the station sufficiently that we would all die. We knew that we relied on each other for our lives,” says Helen, showing how important teamwork is.
3. “We still have some control”
Even with the tasks distributed among the astronauts, Helen recalls that she had things over which she had some control, such as choosing the type of fruit juice to drink and when it was time to sleep. “Now, we have been told to stay at home but we still have some control (no one is telling us which book to read or what time to get up, after all) and there is a huge purpose: to save lives,” she says. “We can still have targets and make achievements every day.”
4. “I had plans and back-up systems“
The astronaut was not scared or anxious about the risks of the mission because she knew what to do in emergency situations. “I knew what to do in other non-standard situations like loss of radio contact or a manual docking,” says Sharman. She reminds us how important it is to have contacts and distribute activities in case you are unable to do something yourself, like taking care of your pet.
5. “Plan something nice for the future”
“With time to spare, we can do what we have always wanted to do but were previously too busy for,” says Sharman. Astronauts on long-term missions, for example, like to watch movies and read books. “On Earth, even just at home, we have a whole load of activity to choose from. And we can plan something nice to look forward to because this will not last forever.”
6. “We have time to appreciate things”
“One of the things my crew and I loved to do at the end of the working day in space was to look out of the window. Seeing lights in cities appear as we entered dusk was magical,” reports the astronaut.
Another important thing is to understand that our happiness does not depend on money and valuable objects. “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,” reflects Sharman.
The astronaut believes that when the pandemic is over, the world will be a better place to live in. “I think we will feel the change in society that will be more communal, more cohesive and generally nicer,” she concludes.