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 Lpez-Alegra, some elements of life during the coronavirus pandemic are not so different from life in space, where he's completed four NASA space flightsone 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, Lpez-Alegra 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, Lpez-Alegra 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, Lpez-Alegra 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 todays 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 youre 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. Its whatever's on your mind, whether thats your family, your work, or the Red Sox.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Romn, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
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 dont have a hard end date, and even when our current phase ends, life certainly wont go back to normal right away. When youre preparing for something where youre 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 expectationthat 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 youre lucky enough to be able to work from home, youre 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 timethe 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 wed see a sunrise and a sunset every 45 minutes. You can't obviously sleep by that rhythm, so wed use Greenwich Mean Time, and wed wake up at a certain hour. We had a routine that would last through a work day, and then wed have what we call pre-sleep activities, and after wed wake up, wed 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 wed work, wed have lunch, wed work some more. Then wed have another conference with the ground, and then wed have pre-sleep, where wed 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 spaceyou could get hit by a meteoroid, which would ruin your daybut 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 wed 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 theyd 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 interestinglet'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 dont 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. Its 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 situationsyou're hot or you're cold or you're hungry or you're thirstyand 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 doesnt 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, its 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 theyve let the team downwhen 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, Its no big deal. I got your back. We're still flying and everythings going okay. Thats what team members do for each other.
ESQ: How did space travel change your outlook on life?
MLA: Theres this thing called the Overview Effect. When people fly in space, they come back slightly altered. Its 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, its 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.
- Space travel is giving the future of cryptocurrency a boost for one surprising reason - Express.co.uk - June 30th, 2020
- How will private space travel change the way we explore the Solar System? - BBC Focus Magazine - June 30th, 2020
- 5 Public Space Companies to Invest in Over the Next Decade - seattlepi.com - June 30th, 2020
- New Houston-made satellites to mimic versatility of the chameleon in space - Houston Chronicle - June 30th, 2020
- Relativity and 6K Partner to Develop AM Rocket Parts for Space Made from Sustainable Materials - PR Newswire UK - June 30th, 2020
- SpaceX news: EU to boost their space exploration to keep up with China and US - Express.co.uk - June 30th, 2020
- Virgin Galactic aims to evolve $15 billion business from space tourism - Business Insider - June 30th, 2020
- Resolution approved to urge feds to locate Space Command headquarters in Ohio - MahoningMatters.com - June 30th, 2020
- At Least 110 People Needed to Start Life on Mars, Space Expert Says - Yahoo News - June 30th, 2020
- Why go 'horse and buggy' to Mars when we could go supersonic? | TheHill - The Hill - June 30th, 2020
- Recapping the Historic First Half of 2020 - Morning Brew - June 30th, 2020
- SpaceX gearing up for another launch of Starlink broadband satellites this week - Spaceflight Now - June 30th, 2020
- Boeing tests Starliner parachutes ahead of second test flight - Digital Trends - June 30th, 2020
- 5 Best Films About Space Exploration (& 5 The Worst), Ranked According To IMDb - Screen Rant - June 30th, 2020
- First UK night out of lockdown camping in Northern Ireland - The Guardian - June 30th, 2020
- The story of Ed Dwight: the man who nearly became the first African-American to reach space - The Next Web - June 30th, 2020
- Senate approves resolution urging feds to locate Space Command headquarters in Ohio - The Center Square - June 30th, 2020
- New company Space Perspective wants to take you to the stratosphere via high-altitude balloon - The Verge - June 21st, 2020
- spaceship neptune is a balloon that will take you to the edge of space - Designboom - June 21st, 2020
- The end of food? 'Taste synthesizer' will transform space travel, dieting and sex - Daily Star - June 21st, 2020
- SpaceX to build floating space ports for rockets destined for the Moon and Mars, and for hypersonic travel to Earth - Up News Info - June 21st, 2020
- What's the science on the Emirates Mars Mission? - DW (English) - June 21st, 2020
- STREAMING WARS: Netflixs big-budget comedy Space Force has all the right ingredients, but fails to deliver the laughs - SaltWire Network - June 21st, 2020
- Coronavirus: Travel to Spain, and the 'second wave' - BBC News - June 21st, 2020
- Is this double-decker seat the future of airplane travel? - CNN - June 21st, 2020
- Safe vacations and traveling during coronavirus: Advice to follow - TODAY - June 21st, 2020
- The Internets Most Censored Space - The New York Times - June 21st, 2020
- Virgin Galactic Stock Is Only for Astronauts and Speculators - InvestorPlace - June 21st, 2020
- Best Solar Eclipse Photos And YouTube Videos Of The Solstice Ring Of Fire From Around The World - Forbes - June 21st, 2020
- The amazon bond offering - Nairametrics - June 21st, 2020
- Satellites, outer space travel to be open for private companies in India: Govt - Livemint - June 13th, 2020
- Former astronaut becomes first person to visit both space and the deepest place in the ocean - CNN - June 13th, 2020
- Guest View: Despite space flight, there is no Planet B - The Register-Guard - June 13th, 2020
- Ask Ethan: How Does The Fabric Of Spacetime Expand Faster Than The Speed Of Light? - Forbes - June 13th, 2020
- Poem of the week: Sermon (for the Burial of Cassini) by Ella Frears - Telegraph.co.uk - June 13th, 2020
- Impact of COVID-19 on Space Tourism Market to Garner Astounding CAGR of 16.6% by 2025 Including Top Key Players- Space Adventures, EADS Astrium,... - June 13th, 2020
- Letters to the Editor: June 12, 2020 - West Hawaii Today - June 13th, 2020
- Have Scientists Found a Hybernation 'Button' for Humans? - The National Interest - June 13th, 2020
- Is It Risky To Ride In A Convertible? Go To A Casino? Travel With Kids? : Goats and Soda - NPR - June 13th, 2020
- Astronomer on why he is a 'frustrated martian', his love of the night sky and what the future holds for space travel - Times & Star - June 13th, 2020
- From Breakfast at Tiffanys to To Kill A Mockingbird, the best and worst examples of diversity in film - Evening Standard - June 13th, 2020
- What Space Travel Will Look Like in the Future - Earthly ... - June 9th, 2020
- WRITE TEAM: Space travel is back to once again give us faraway dreams - MyWebTimes.com - June 9th, 2020
- Former NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan becomes first person to travel to space and ocean's deepest point - ABC News - June 9th, 2020
- Netflixs Space Force Just Exposed Animal Cruelty In Space Travel - LIVEKINDLY - June 9th, 2020
- You Can Now Tour the International Space Station From the Comfort of Your Home - Robb Report - June 9th, 2020
- This is the 'most ridiculously overvalued' trade in the travel space, strategist warns - CNBC - June 9th, 2020
- Evolution of 3rd, 4th and 5th Dimensions of Travel - Use Cases, Infrastructure Required, Application Areas, and Growth Opportunities -... - June 9th, 2020
- The Dangers of Space, Military Rivals and Other New Books to Read - Smithsonian.com - June 9th, 2020
- Here's how astronauts exercise in space without gravity - Yahoo Lifestyle - June 9th, 2020
- A group of enthusiasts has annotated the assembly code for the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon - Neowin - June 9th, 2020
- Faster-than-light travel: Is warp drive really possible? - BBC Focus Magazine - June 9th, 2020
- America Once Planned To Send An Apollo Spacecraft To A Soviet Space Station - Jalopnik - June 9th, 2020
- Trend report: nothing 'normal' about travel in the age of Covid-19 - Globetrender - June 9th, 2020
- Astronomer on why he is a 'frustrated martian', his love of the night sky and what the future holds for space travel - The Westmorland Gazette - June 9th, 2020
- Future Meeting Space explores customer needs and expectations on new event formats - Travel Daily News International - June 9th, 2020
- News: New Rotherham active travel projects - Rotherham Business News - June 9th, 2020
- Spain to extend restrictions on international travelers until June 15 - EL PAS in English - May 15th, 2020
- The 100 Series Finale Trailer Teases Screams, Space Travel, And Drastic Haircuts - Gizmodo Australia - May 15th, 2020
- On the Road Review: Ram 2500 Limited Crew Cab Diesel - Press Herald - May 15th, 2020
- Spains reeling tourism industry objects to travel restrictions - EL PAS in English - May 15th, 2020
- Virgin Galactic Is Grounded with No Profit and Little Revenue - InvestorPlace - May 15th, 2020
- Astronaut on how to survive isolation, and the future of space travel - Business Insider - Business Insider - May 14th, 2020
- Virgin Galactic Is a Solid Long-Term Bet on Space Travel Demand - InvestorPlace - May 14th, 2020
- Meet The Women Of The San Diego Art Prize - KPBS - May 14th, 2020
- Visual Artist Melissa Walter Makes Sense Of The Stars - KPBS - May 14th, 2020
- Astronauts experimented with Nickelodeon's slime in space - CNN - May 14th, 2020
- Virgin Group to sell shares of space venture to aid travel business - UPI News - May 14th, 2020
- What to binge next: 10 sci-fi shows to escape into the future - UPI.com - May 14th, 2020
- The sky is full of weird X-shaped galaxies. Here's why. - Live Science - May 14th, 2020
- What is Jeff Bezos net worth? - The Scottish Sun - May 14th, 2020
- The 100 Series Finale Trailer Teases Screams, Space Travel, and Drastic Haircuts - Gizmodo - May 14th, 2020
- 11 Ways Space Travel Will Change in the Next Decade ... - May 4th, 2020
- The 12 Greatest Challenges for Space Exploration | WIRED - May 4th, 2020
- Interstellar travel - Wikipedia - May 4th, 2020
- Tom Cruise teaming with Elon Musk, NASA to shoot action movie in space - Yahoo News - May 4th, 2020
- Patty Crane: Book shows importance of the moon, Earth's iconic satellite - Joplin Globe - May 4th, 2020
- SpaceX to launch first crewed spacecraft to International Space Station | Forge - ForgeToday - May 4th, 2020
- Video: Astronaut teaches Dundee kids about space travel with virtual visits - Evening Telegraph - May 4th, 2020
- Destinations That Have Extra Space - Peter Greenberg.com Travel News - May 4th, 2020