The Resilience of Astronauts: Coping with Isolation in Space

Recently former NASA astronauts Mike Massimino, Ph.D., and Jerry Linenger, M.D., discussed coping with isolation to their experiences in space.

Former NASA astronauts Mike Massimino, Ph.D., and Jerry Linenger, M.D., have executed some of the most dangerous and complex missions in space history. The two American heroes got together on Instagram Live for an enlightening discussion on “The Resilience of Astronauts: Coping with Isolation in Space.”

We have provided a few excerpts of the conversation below. View the entire conversation on WSB’s YouTube channel.


Massimino: It’s not necessarily something we’re born with, knowing how to be isolated. There are things you can do to make that experience better. Jerry, what would you start with there? 

Linenger: Yeah, as you know, I had 5 months with myself, two Russians cut off from mankind (on the MIR space station)… and finally we had one re-supply ship and on there, my wife had stuffed a shoebox with some mental health kind of stuff. They sent me a [Detroit] Red Wings baseball cap signed by [hockey player] Steve Yzerman. And a Bo Schembechler Michigan football… kind of psychological support. [Linenger is from the state of Michigan.] But there were some newspaper articles stuffed in there. And this is going to sound kind of ridiculous and I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but I would take that newspaper article and read it, then I would flip it over and read whatever was on the backside – something that happened 3 months ago. Because I was just craving human beings and something with the outside world…

We’re going to come out of this COVID-19 situation, and when we do, we’re going to be tested. And during this time, when you have the time to prep for it and try to anticipate the risks, and to prepare yourself mentally, physically, morally — everything you need to do to get ready for that challenge…

My one big advice for living in isolation – do something constructive. Have a bucket list? Check off the things… Develop yourself. Come out of this COVID-19 isolation that we’re in with some new skills.


Massimino: We learned our lessons based on your experience that it isn’t such a great way to go, sequestering people. If people are having trouble with this, it’s because it’s hard. And you have these other tools available to you, like we’re doing now Instagram Live…use these tools. I had a Zoom call with my family last weekend. It was kind of fun... Because my kids are in all these different places now…That’s what we used to do when we were in space. Try to stay connected with the control center. You mentioned reading the newspaper, the things you like. Whatever that might be. I think another thing you mentioned, which was good, was having something meaningful to do. I put it in the category of meaningful distractions. But meaningful is the thing.

Linenger: Yeah, a little drill I’ve done…Ask yourself – what I did in the last 15 minutes. Was that worthwhile? Or am I just wasting my time? Then live another 15 minutes of your life and look back on it. And another. And just do that drill for about 2 or 3 hours… And hopefully you’ll look back on that as time well spent. I’ve gained some insights from people that have been places and have a different perspective. You know, that I can gain something from that. You got to gain something from it.



Massimino: The trust element of it [going up in space] is something really important. It’s something I had to learn. To trust the people around you, that are going to take care of you. Getting your equipment ready. And trust your equipment and the spacesuits, the shuttle and all that. You build that trust by getting to know those people. You’re believing in the technology. But it’s also the people that are getting you ready. And I think that comes into play here too Jerry, with what we’re dealing with this COVID-19. Because we’re trusting our leadership and we’re trusting the medical people around the world that are trying to help us with this. And luckily, we have really good medical people. We have this thing in New York…at 7 p.m., when there’s a traditional shift change for the hospital system…everyone stops what they’re doing and [they] applaud. The windows come open. Everyone on the street, keeping their social distance, starts clapping… that’s been pretty cool. And I think it’s a way to thank them because we have some really dedicated people trying to help us here… We need them to help us, just like the great people that got us into orbit.

Linenger: To your point on expertise…we’ve got the brainpower out there. They’re attacking the problem. Well done with everyone staying isolated so we can let that curve flatten out… So, the more we can spread it out, the more the healthcare systems can absorb it. And the more our smart people can figure out solutions.



Massimino: One thing you mentioned about leadership and dealing with these tough times… It’s easier to be the leader — and even a teammate — when things are going well. When you’re winning… and things are going well, and people are happy, well, that’s just great… But what happens when things go bad? And things go bad and we make mistakes in space travel… And I always felt like you don’t throw the other person under the bus. You stick together as a team. And when something tragic happens – like we had when we had the shuttle accident – I think it really brought out the best in us. And you see what kind of team you have, and what kind of leader you can be… And I think you can really find out what we’re made of now, and it’s not just us individually, but what we’re made of collectively.

Linenger:  The perspective from space, the big picture, you know, we’re all on the planet together. And these things do bring us all together. So that’s the positive… I have the privilege to represent the world out there in space…  and I have realized that we can all rise to the occasion. We can overcome anything, and we can come out stronger. And when you come out of it and survive the type of experience I did for example. You can come out and say, ‘I can depend on my crewmates.’ We can get the job done no matter what the circumstance and we can overcome anything. And that’s the message to every company out there.

More videos on resilience from WSB’s YouTube Channel

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