No one knows long-term isolation like astronauts. Confined in space for months on end, they orbit thousands of miles above their homes, their loved ones, and anything remotely familiar about human life. For veteran astronaut Michael López-Alegría, some elements of life during the coronavirus pandemic are not so different from life in space, where he’s completed four NASA space flights—one aboard the International Space Station and three aboard the Space Shuttle. He also holds the NASA record for the most spacewalks (10 spacewalks, totaling 67 hours of cumulative time), and his longest spaceflight of 215 days is the third-longest spaceflight of any American astronaut. In 2012, López-Alegría retired from NASA; he now consults with space companies, and sits on several advisory boards and committees for space travel organizations both public and private.
This year, López-Alegría was honored as one of three inductees into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, though like so much else about public life, the ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex was postponed due to the pandemic. While social distancing down here on the ground, López-Alegría was kind enough to talk to Esquire about being alone in space, working through conflict with your isolation team, and appreciating the uniqueness of Earth.
ESQ: Would you say you’ve ever felt lonely in space or far from your loved ones?
MLA: We had some ample ways of communicating, which included email. We actually had a telephone where we could call pretty much anybody on Earth. Most any time during the day, we were in constant communication with the mission control team in Houston. You don’t really feel like you’re by yourself up there. In today’s world, you can imagine people in Antarctica or people on nuclear submarines in the Navy that are probably more isolated than we were in space. Plus, in space, the view’s a lot better.
ESQ: When you’re that isolated, where do you go in your mind when your mind wanders?
MLA: The most tranquil moments are when you’re looking out the window at the Earth. Often when you look out the window, you see clouds or ocean, because it turns out there’s a lot of them on our planet. You’re not necessarily looking for something or at something. You’re looking at a landscape going by. Where your mind wanders is not terribly different from where it wanders when you have a moment like that on Earth. It’s whatever’s on your mind, whether that’s your family, your work, or the Red Sox.
ESQ: When you were in space, what did you most look forward to about your return to Earth?
MLA: You miss Earth smells like rain and freshly mowed grass. Things like that that are just impossible in space. I miss a glass of wine with dinner. I miss cooking, actually, because all the food on orbit is pre-prepared and you just heat it up. The routine, mundane stuff of living on Earth is what you miss the most.
ESQ: What kind of mental preparations did you go through to stay positive as time passed in space?
MLA: That’s another thing that’s very different when you’re an astronaut or on a submarine: You have an end date. You know that on such and such a day, you’re going to de-orbit and come back to Earth. That’s what’s hard about this particular situation, because we don’t have a hard end date, and even when our current phase ends, life certainly won’t go back to normal right away. When you’re preparing for something where you’re going to endure some hardship, especially isolation and separation, your organism goes through a process where you become prepared for it. It happens subconsciously and emotionally. That contributes a lot to the fact that I never felt anxious about “when the heck this is gonna be over?”
ESQ: When you were on the Space Station, how did you create boundaries between living space and working space?
MLA: When I launched, that was my expectation—that I would be living and working and eating and playing and exercising in the same space. We did hours of simulation prior to launch, and after a while, it just became the new norm. If you’re lucky enough to be able to work from home, you’re still working. It should not be that you’re working in your PJs or sitting on your bed with your laptop. You should try to sit at a desk, even if it’s a much smaller environment. You just have to set up boundaries in your head to partition whatever space you have into different areas for different purposes. A peril of working from home is there’s really no stop time—the emails keep coming and the phone calls keep coming, which means you need to set some time apart for yourself and do something that interests you. Have a hobby.
ESQ: Did you have a daily stop time on the Space Station?
MLA: Yes, we did. We had an artificial clock, because you go around the Earth once every 90 minutes, so we’d see a sunrise and a sunset every 45 minutes. You can’t obviously sleep by that rhythm, so we’d use Greenwich Mean Time, and we’d wake up at a certain hour. We had a routine that would last through a work day, and then we’d have what we call pre-sleep activities, and after we’d wake up, we’d have post-sleep. Post-sleep includes getting hygiene, getting dressed, having breakfast, connecting a little bit with the world. Then we’d have a conference with the ground, then we’d work, we’d have lunch, we’d work some more. Then we’d have another conference with the ground, and then we’d have pre-sleep, where we’d do basically the same thing. Hygiene, dinner, play around.
ESQ: Another feeling that many people are confronting for the first time is the sensation that danger is all around us. Did you feel that way in space?
MLA: Not really. The launch is dangerous, and there are certainly dangers in space—you could get hit by a meteoroid, which would ruin your day—but NASA does a good job understanding and mitigating the risks. The launch is dicey, the landing is dicey, doing a space walk is dicey, but day-to-day inside operations? Not so bad.
ESQ: Many people are also reporting feeling bored. Did you ever feel bored in space?
MLA: No. You never got bored in space. We did our routine Monday through Friday; on Saturday we’d work a half day, and Sunday was a day off. Even when we had no activity going on, there was always something to do. People would keep up with their friends and family, or they’d read a book, or they’d look out the window at the Earth and try to test their geography, or they’d do a home improvement task on the Space Station. I can imagine that in the conditions we’re in now, it’s perhaps not as easy. Looking out the window is not as interesting—let’s put it that way.
ESQ: When you’re stuck together with a handful of other people in space, how do you deal with conflict?
MLA: For a long time, NASA only flew on the Space Shuttle, so the flights were generally two weeks long and you’re sprinting the whole time, which means you don’t have much opportunity for conflict. When you’re up there for six months or longer on the Space Station, it’s certainly a possibility. NASA put together a training syllabus, which I was skeptical of, but it does in fact help. You do a lot of training with your crewmates and you get to know them; everybody can sense each other’s strengths and weaknesses, hot buttons and thresholds, and all that. It’s the same phenomenon I described before about how your organism subconsciously gears up. What might be irritating for me in day-to-day life on Earth might not irritate me in space, because I’ve said to myself, “This is a much more intimate situation. I’m just not going to let things bother me.”
ESQ: What was in the training syllabus from NASA?
MLA: We did a lot of practical exercises that would involve putting you in physiologically uncomfortable situations—you’re hot or you’re cold or you’re hungry or you’re thirsty—and those stressors are meant to lower that threshold of tripping before you display some unsportsmanlike behavior, for lack of a better word. Those kinds of behaviors would come out every once in a while; then we would take a time out and talk about what just happened, what are the coping mechanisms I can learn from that, how can I see the signs in my crewmate when this is about to boil over, how can I diffuse that. They’re just techniques that most of us, me included, would’ve said were common sense. But until you really think about it and, more importantly, have it demonstrated to you under the guidance of instructors, it doesn’t sink in as well. It really does work.
ESQ: Could any of those techniques be applicable to someone experiencing tension with other people in isolation?
MLA: If there’s conflict that seems to be occurring, take a second to think about it. What were the signs of that coming? How could I have avoided that from boiling over? What is it that this person is doing to me that’s irritating, and how can I make that not be such a big deal to me? If you think about those things, it’s not rocket science.
ESQ: What was the lowest you ever felt in space, and how did you get through it?
MLA: The thing that bothers astronauts the most is when they feel like they’ve let the team down—when they made a mistake, or they forgot to do something, or a task took them too long. You have a real sense of working as part of a team, and the things that might affect you about your personal life, you think, “That’s my problem to deal with and I can manage that.” Even managing those things feels like something that you’re doing for the team. What helps you is the rest of the team saying, “It’s no big deal. I got your back. We’re still flying and everything’s going okay.” That’s what team members do for each other.
ESQ: How did space travel change your outlook on life?
MLA: There’s this thing called the Overview Effect. When people fly in space, they come back slightly altered. It’s very slight, but having had that perspective of the Earth without borders and seeing the beauty and the uniqueness of our planet compared to everything else that’s out there, you gain a greater appreciation for it. You also gain a sense of its fragility. You can actually look through and see how thin the atmosphere is; you realize that this thin layer is all that protects us from what’s out there in space, which is radiation and freezing temperatures. You become not only concerned about stewardship of the planet, but also of each other. We’re all in the same space ship together down here on Earth, so to speak. It makes you feel like we ought to be able to figure out a way to get along with each other a little bit better, because we’re all team members.
It also makes you more tolerant of other cultures and other ways of thinking, as well as more averse to conflict. It doesn’t hit you over the head, but it’s definitely a change, and if you imagine that in the history of humanity, something like 560 people have ever been to orbit, it’s remarkable. I remember after my first mission, I thought, “If I could take a head of state of every nation on one orbit of the Earth, the Earth would be a better place.” It’s because of this sense of perspective and connectivity that we have with both the Earth and the people on it. If more people had it, it would make the world a better place to live.
That said, the experience of flying in space is absolutely magnificent, but it’s all in the context of coming back to Earth. As great as flying in space is, I don’t want to live the rest of my life there. I’m happy to be home, and I think we need to appreciate the place that we live and take better care of it.