ORLANDO, Fla. — As many Americans continue to self-isolate in their homes, many for the first time, astronauts have a leg up, as they’ve all gone through quarantine before.
A blog post from Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex explains that, in order to prevent the contraction and spread of any illness, astronauts are held in isolation for seven days prior to their launch as part of the Crew Health Stabilization Program.
Michael Lopez-Alegria, a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions and one International Space Station mission, recalls the first time he quarantined prior to launch.
“My first flight tied a NASA record because we scrubbed six times before we actually launched … We were in quarantine for a much longer period because of all of those attempts,” said Lopez-Alegria, who will be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame this year. “It’s kind of nice to not have to worry about everyday things in life like preparing meals. We were allowed visitation by our families, who also had to go through a medical screening.”
Before launching to board the ISS for more than seven months, the veteran astronaut had to isolate for two weeks. This wasn’t nearly as long as the Apollo 11 astronauts’ quarantine following their return from the moon — 21 days — for fear of “moon germs.”
During his time in space, away from family and friends, Lopez-Alegria said he didn’t feel as isolated as one might expect.
“We were always in contact with somebody, either mission control, or we had access to what we call the IP phone. You could call somebody on Earth whenever you had satellite coverage,” he said. “Looking out the window and seeing the planet is very somehow comforting.”
However, Lopez-Alegria said that his times aboard NASA’s space shuttles and the ISS lacked some of the simple pleasures Earth has to offer.
“The feel of fresh air or the smell of rain. The smells tend to be repetitive, depending on what you’re eating for dinner,” he said. “I missed having a glass of wine with dinner. The food is not terrible. It’s nutritious, but it’s repetitive. I like to cook, and there is no cooking.”
At least those quarantining on Earth can still go outside for a walk to enjoy some of those natural sensations, or enjoy a beverage with a home-cooked meal. However, Lopez-Alegria pointed out an important distinction between a space mission and this ongoing pandemic.
“I think the biggest difference is the uncertainty of how long it’s going to last. On a mission, you know how long it’s going to be,” he said. “In both cases, I’d say there’s a sense of greater purpose. We’re all doing this for a reason, because we’re trying to flatten the curve and stop the spread.”
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