Quarantine is a challenging way to spend your time—as we’re all learning in the era of Covid-19. I learned it in an even more dramatic way, spending a full year in lockdown with five other people—on Mars. Technically speaking, it wasn’t Mars of course; it was the HI-SEAS simulated Mars base on the flank of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii—a collaborative project sponsored by the University of Hawaii and NASA, to study how astronauts will acclimate to long periods in close quarters away from home. I am a scientist and doctor and was the crew physician when, in 2015, our crew began our year in isolation without regular access to the internet, alcohol, fresh food, or direct communication with other human beings. We did this for science, for adventure, and in the hope of a better future for humankind.
We signed up for that. The people on earth currently sheltering in place did not sign up for this. Yet here we are: on a critical mission that will directly affect the future of humankind. To give our new, shared mission a boost, here are some things I learned about surviving and thriving—and, not incidentally, staying sane—that can be of value to all of us now.
1. Organize: Construct your time and space as if you were on a platform orbiting high above the Earth. Get up at a regular time and exercise. Eat and check email and social media on a schedule, limiting yourself to 30-minute slots. Try using a checklist. Pilots and astronauts use them to ensure that important things are done in a particular way. Checklists also impart a sense of stability, agency, and fulfillment. Lay out the things you need to do and give yourself credit for knocking them out.
2. Exercise: Build time to exercise into your day, every single day. Classes online are surging. On simulated Mars (or sMars for short), we had individual and group workouts. Call a friend and exercise together online or follow a video. After a year of not feeling the wind, rain, or sun on my skin, walking outside or opening a window still feels like a gift. If permitted, go outside, keeping at a safe distance from others, and enjoy being on Earth.
3. Meal Plan: For the health of body and mind, make meal plans and stick to them. Staying at home means a high level of access to food anytime, which can become a problem quickly. Use special treats and meals to mark occasions: the end of a week, time online with friends and family, and other special moments.
4. Make space for growing things: We simulated Martians kept something living in every curve of the dome that was our home. Plants grew on desks, on racks, under the stairs, up the walls. Yogurt and bread cultures chilled in the mini-fridge. Kombucha snoozed in recycled glass jars in my bunk room. You don’t need to name the cheese cultures the way we did – though it is entertaining – but having living things in your environment that need your support give you a sense of purpose: not to mention food, drink, and something nice to see.
5. Variety is the spice of life: Everything in the world has a unique smell, a sound, a taste. It’s easy to forget that variety on Earth, where we live among so many sensory inputs. In confinement, sensations can start to take on new depths. Small details can start to stand out. Four months into isolation we had our first tomato harvest. My tomato was the size of a thumbnail, smelled like a whole hothouse, and burned my lips with the first bite. If you feel like you’re not getting enough stimulation, stop, take a deep breath, look around, and notice all the colors, shapes, sounds, and smells around you.
6. Request help: Astronauts are people too and people are not always great at asking for help. Doctors are especially bad at this. So I make it a point to ask at least three people for help every day. I did it in confinement and I do it now—simple things, like, “Do you think you could bring the patient in 301 some ice?” and “Would you let me know if we get more masks in, please?” I don’t apologize for these requests. I thank people for their kindness, their patience, and their assistance. It’s humbling and humanizing and it invites their requests for help in return.
7. Offer help: On sMars, I sent videos or recordings to three people a day: to let them know that I was thinking about them, missing them, hoping they were well. It doesn’t take long, but it will mean a lot to them. Asking others what they need will help you feel grounded, connected and important.
8. Slow is the new fast: True in space, super-true during pandemics. Take your time. Do things right. Don’t get hurt. Now is not the time to make a trip to the hospital for stitches or a busted ankle!
9. Emote: I can’t stress this enough. Strong, scared, lost, found: regardless of your physical state, you are not alone in going through this life experience. If you don’t want to talk it out, write it out. Journaling can be a healthy way of processing and a good way to record what happened during what will be a unique time. If you’re angry, be constructive about it. When in doubt, assume the best of others.
10. Find your crew and hang on tight: We’re facing down a terrifying threat, yet, the world is still a beautiful, rich, amazing place. As always, we’re hurtling through space on a planet-sized spaceship. What makes this uncertain journey possible – and worthwhile – is the people on your crew. Their survival is your mission.
Correction, April 3: The original version of this story misstated the name of the simulated Mars base in Hawaii. It’s HI-RISE, not HI-SEAS.
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