Tips on dealing with isolation…

| April 9, 2020

Ready for the first ‘Mars’ walk

…From the European Space Agency (ESA).

Human exploration of our Solar System is an important focus for the ESA. The Agency has started on the path to making this a reality in the future. Making sure that our astronauts are prepared mentally and physically for the demands of long exploration missions is imperative for a mission’s success.

In light of this, ESA undertook a cooperative project with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow, called Mars-500.

Similarly, NASA is researching from another outfit with experience sending people to isolation: the U.S. Navy submarine force.

Our space agency is working with a military laboratory at the submarine base in Groton to measure how teams cope with stress during month-long simulations of space flight.

So here’s some lessons learned from the Mars-500 1.4 year-long experiment.

Isolation tips from an ESA MARS-500 crew member who took part in a simulated space mission to Mars

David Cenciotti

Diego Urbina is an engineer who took part in an experiment conducted on the ground to simulate conditions of human isolation that could be faced in a future expedition to the planet Mars.

From his home in Brussels, where he has been confined for a week by the Coronavirus pandemic, Urbina provides some tips to resist these days’ “imprisonment”. Like millions of citizens around the world, Diego also lives with concern the current situation and tries to adapt his behavior to the new scenario created by COVID-19.

But Diego has a significant advantage: in 2010, along with five colleagues from the European Space Agency (ESA), he took part in the experimental mission MARS-500, a project that simulated a trip to Mars in which they stayed for 520 days inside a special complex (located on the Institute of Biomedical Problems’ site in Moscow), completely isolated from the outside world.

Here is the testimony he gave to the journalist Antonio Martinéz Ron, from Vozpópuli media outlet.

“It’s like a deja-vu, although today’s situation is clearly different, because this coronavirus is no longer a simulation. I believe that my experience during the MARS-500 mission can serve to give some advice on how to better organize and use our daily time,” Urbina explains.

Task diversification.
“First we must be aware that now we will have a certain period of time at our disposal, which we had previously occupied in social activities (work, hobbies, sports). It can be heavy, but on the other hand we must see the benefit: we can take advantage of this time to study and learn new things.
In our case, our 6-crew member team of MARS-500 didn’t have an internet connection and we could communicate externally only by email.

We only had books and few things, so that once our planned activities are finished we have 8 hours free each day. So I started studying Russian, to better communicate with my mission mates. And I also learned to draw; in the end I made some drawings and that made me very happy. These activities helped me to keep my mind more active, and a not falling into a spiral of laziness that caused damage in my daily activities, where we also simulated stressful situation, as a real space mission.

We read a lot: during year of MARS-500 mission I read about 30 books. Currently, however, in my daily life I have very little time to read. Remembering that period, I must admit that I miss having all that available time.”

Timetable organization.
According to Diego Urbina, it’s very important to organize the hours, so as not to interrupt the biological rhythms of the human body.

“In our case, we had no chance of being exposed to the sun. The lack of light alters the heart rhythms, so we were exposed to a special blue light.
It also altered the metabolism, for which we were forced to take vitamin D. That’s why I recommend you take advantage of the daylight hours, perhaps by spending time near the windows. Since we are entering the months with more light of the year, this should not be a big problem.

It’s also important not to alter our sleep patterns. We have to set very regular times, to avoid getting up too late and doing nothing all morning, as it can negatively affect our sleep patterns. In the case of our MARS-500 project, we were trying various ways to organize daily activities.

For example, dealing with the cleaning activities, we understood that the best way was to do them one day a week, all together, at the same time, so it was also fun and broke the routine. In addition to doing new things every day, it’s also important to distribute the tasks, and at the same time alternate them.”

Do exercise.
“For any space mission, physical exercise is mandatory, because in microgravity conditions the muscle tissue deteriorates very quickly if there is no physical activity. For people who are home these days for the COVID-19 emergency, this is a key factor. Here in Brussels jogging is allowed, but in places like Italy where this alternative doesn’t exist it’s possible to do many exercises in limited spaces, such as the living room at home.

If this current situation seems overwhelming to you, it may perhaps comfort you to know that during the simulated mission we faced additional difficulties that made it even more complicated: we had to take urine samples every day to keep our values in check; we didn’t have services such as internet connection or telephone (which now we take for granted); while we simulated the communications that will be made when we go to Mars we couldn’t speak directly to anyone else besides ourselves; and we haven’t seen sunlight for many months.”

“Our crew of the MARS-500 mission were alternately given some menus, always taking care that it was a healthy and varied diet. After eight months, however, we got a little bored with the food cycle. I therefore recommend changing dishes as much as possible. It’s also very important to limit the goodies, and don’t eat sweets every day, even if it’s tempting.

The positive side of the isolation period is that you don’t have such easy access to ‘junk food’ and that you can cook at home. In this way you have the opportunity to see what we are about to eat, know its nutritional value, and balance it well so as to be healthier after isolation.”

Psychological conflicts.
“In space missions, like a Mars trip, the possibility of conflicts between people is one of the greatest risks; which in a situation like the one we are living now can become relevant. We must learn to have a special patience. It’s quite complicated to manage conflicts, because there can be many different variables.

Our crew of the MARS-500 mission have been facilitated, because ESA psychologists had previously excluded potentially problematic people during selection phase. The technique we used during the 520 day isolation was not necessarily to sit around a table and talk to each other directly; when there was some friction, we tried to address issues less explicitly, doing nice things for each other. It’s an easy way to act, without the need to impose or criticize, to get everyone back in a good mood. In real life these days you have to be very tolerant, and understand the other person’s needs. We will probably be locked up for many days: there is no point in being in a bad mood with someone for the rest of the time.”

“When the simulation of the MARS-500 project was over, when we came out of isolation after having been so long without seeing anyone, without even seeing the sun, nature and animals, it was a very positive shock. We were able to see all those normal things again.

Even the simple sight of a tree was a marvel. The first time we saw the sun rise, heard a dog bark or looked after a child, it was an emotion.

Now it will be a little less intense, but for all of us it will still be a good opportunity to appreciate all the usual things we took for granted every day.

It certainly will be like this when this coronavirus emergency is overcome.”

We aren’t under such severe conditions- MrsAW1 and I can get out on necessary business, and have diversions unavailable to the Mars-500 crew. Still some good advice, and hard earned.

Wrap it up here: We Are The Mighty

Category: COVID-19, It's science!

Comments (27)

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  1. 2banana says:

    Have equal numbers of fairly fit and attractive opposite sex crew members?

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    Not too many changes for me lately. Didn’t mind staying in, it’s too peoplely out there anyhow. Not so much concerned for myself but I have a Lady Friend that helps look after my decrepit broke down self and do not want her to get infected. Who would look after me then? Having the inherwebz does help, plus research and reading books. Oh…and classic cowboy TV and Wednesdays are for JAG.

    They keep moving the lockdown date out, I will need some milk, bread, and critter food soon. The little town that Firebase Magnolia is in has a Dollar General and a Family Dollar, plus a baby Piggly Wiggly. If need be they are kinda sorta in walking distance and have mostly anything I may need. Have had to postpone several planned Memorial Services and some History Programs and, of course, my adoring public has missed seeing me out and about so there is that.

    I will endeavor…I will persevere!

  3. Skyjumper says:

    Hasn’t changed my life by much.

    Been busy working on a old 1981 Honda CMT, finishing up the kitchen remodel this week with the stone backsplash being the only thing left to do, doing some fine sawdust making out in the shop working on a few projects, getting the rider ready for lawn mowing and then in a week or two getting my old collector car out of storage and shine it up and of course come on here at TAH.

    Stocked up with groceries (as normal) so no need to head into town for a couple of weeks.

    Gas is under a buck here…but no wheres to go.

    Only bad thing is not being able to see my younger boy & his wife as much. They came out last week to visit & sat on the deck for a few hours.They both work at essential jobs and insisted they keep a proper distance from me so as not to transfer any unwanted germs to the old guy (yeah, they’re back in my will). (smile)

    I guess I get confused as to why a fair number of people are bored. Heck, finish some of those projects you have been putting off or start a new one, play some games with the kids or wife, drive someplace out in the country and sniff some dairy-air.

    Life is truly what you make out of it.

    Stay safe all of you.

  4. HT3 '83-'87 says:

    I’ve been off work, so I am taking advantage of the the Florida sunshine. My son an I walk 5k after dinner, and I’ve been playing golf. The club houses are all closed (no beer or snacks), but the course are having lots of specials to draw players. You can ride one in cart if you want, and all the holes have about 3″ of a pool noodle in the cup so the ball doesn’t go all the way down and you don’t have to handle the flag. This need to end in the next 2 weeks.

  5. The Other Whitey says:

    Made substantial progress on my daughter’s F-100 and my niece’s F2H. Got lots of quality time with my kids. And every weapon in my safe is sparklingly, immaculately, divinely clean. And I still have a few days left on my vacation.

    The latest change at work is that we are now under orders not to wear pants in the station. Uniform pants and boots are to be left on the apparatus and donned for response. Upon this announcement, the obligatory reply was, “So what’s the policy on freeballing?”

    • Mason says:

      No pants you say. That’s a new one.

      • The Other Whitey says:

        That’s about what I said when they told me. Well, my exact words were “Huh? What the fuck? Who the hell’s the overpaid asshole who came up with that one? Ah hell, if they want me to spend the day in socks and PT shorts, so be it.”

  6. 26Limabeans says:

    Winter in Northern Maine.
    It’s not a Mars mission but things can get buggy.
    Then Spring shows up and the state tells you
    not to come out until they say so.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Just sayin’…

  8. Fjardeson says:

    Working from home. Maintaining same schedule of work, play, downtime, sleep. Eating better because cooking at home. Only thing I really miss is the pub… do “virtual pubs” on the interwebs

  9. Berliner says:

    Came across this while isolating…

  10. OWB says:

    Things not all that different around here once you get used to the fact that even when you go somewhere there is nothing you can do there. Sort of.

    Never did go for crowds, so don’t miss them. Still won’t stand in lines willingly so have adjusted a couple of things to avoid them. Don’t miss seeing the assorted docs at all. Biggest thing is my two favorite restaurants are closed, and we can only hope not permanently.

    Working on taxes just like this time every year. Might as well get them done even if we wait to file them. But, it is beginning to wear on me. I watch too many around me slowly going under. So sad and so unnecessary.

  11. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    If the Voices wake you up at 2am, commanding you to sharpen all the knives and get ready….

    You are probably doing isolation wrong.


  12. A Proud Infidel®™️ says:

    I’m not saying I’m that bored, but WHY THE HELL does one bag of rice contain 7,388 grains while the next has 7,502?

    • Claw says:

      Answer: Cannibalism rate within each bag, cause everybody knows that rice eat their own kind./smile

      But you’re lucky (or pretty smart) you counted them when you did, as a one pound bag of long-grain rice usually contains about 29,000 grains.

  13. Skippy says:

    Well I’m already a loner so what’s the big deal
    It’s me myself and I
    And da wife and two kiddos

  14. 26Limabeans says:

    Whatever you do don’t keep reading the bad news.
    You may never want to go outside again.

  15. Wilted Willy says:

    I work from home, so no difference to me, except the fact that my grandson is home from school and the little bastard is driving me crazy screaming at the video games!! I still go to the store, I have to make a trip to the liquor store today, I am out of rum, so that is an emergency! I always wear a mask when I go out and I stay the fuck away from everyone! Stay safe out there!!

    • Skippy says:

      Amen on kiddos at home driving one crazy
      Our oldest daughter with the youngest
      One have me losing my mind