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When living in a crisis is a job: lockdown survival tips from seasoned pros. Part 1: Cosmonaut

As the 'coronacrisis' poses one challenge after another, people are struggling to adapt to a new reality. RTD explores how people who endured hardships in their line of work by choice handle isolation, uncertainty, and health risks – conditions many suffer from during the coronavirus pandemic. In a series of short interviews, a cosmonaut, a submariner, and a polar explorer explain how to stay focused and even benefit from the current misfortunes.

The first hero is Fyodor Yurchikhin.

fyodor yurchikhin iss cosmonaut lockdown survival tips
Fyodor Yurchikhin is a decorated cosmonaut, Hero of the Russian Federation, the 98th Russian cosmonaut, and the 423rd person into space/Courtesy Fyodor Yurchikhin

Cosmonauts spend months in a confined space with colleagues. Many people are now in lockdown, deprived of their routines, confined to their homes. From your experience as a cosmonaut, how should people behave, so everyone feels comfortable?

I am addressing to fathers, to men! You are captains of your crews. What matters the most when the crew is in a confined space is esprit de corps, a sense of togetherness. A lot depends on you. Talking to each other, watching movies, discussing issues helps a lot to feel like a team. Guys, this tough time has given you a chance to be with your families. On any regular day, people are too busy to talk, and now they have that possibility. Just find time for your family, friends, and loved ones.

What is the main rule of interpersonal compatibility in the crew?

fyodor yurchikhin iss lockdown crisis advice
Courtesy Fyodor Yurchikhin

The initial selection of the proper candidates includes requirements of psychological compatibility. And today, the candidates for international crews are being determined by the committees, but the members of the actual crew are announced later – we might not know we are chosen until before the launch. But it's the job. Any expedition, however, takes eighteen months to prepare, in which time we learn about each other's strengths and weaknesses. And it is essential to use crew members' strengths and to choose a gentler approach to their shortcomings.

To many people, it's hard to comprehend they can't walk the streets freely, have picnics, go out for a stroll in a park, visit shopping malls. How can one come to terms with this, and how such activities can be replaced?

fyodor yurchikhin open space survival tips amid coronacrisis
Courtesy Fyodor Yurchikhin

Unfortunately, there's no way to come to terms with this. We, cosmonauts, start with getting into the right state of mind, since we isolate ourselves voluntarily. People must realise their lives are postponed for better times.

To me, one story was especially indicative of the situation. We arrived at the ISS, and the 14th expedition captain was Michael López-Alegría. The launch was initially scheduled for March but was postponed until April. So, their landing was also delayed. I was the 15th expedition captain, and he shared his experience with me and handed over his role to me. Later, we had an official ceremony of the delegation of authority. I asked Michael, "Michael, you spent seven months there, and then you were told that you needed to stay some more. How did you take it?' And he said, "If they tell me now that I need to stay even longer, I'll be ready to do that."

What do you do if you want to be alone for a while? Or if you are not in the mood, how do you manage that?

fyodor yurchikhin iss survival tips for coronacrisis
Courtesy Fyodor Yurchikhin

We have enough space, as the station consists of 16 modules. But there's no way to lock yourself up; hatches have no locks. Still, you can find a minute or two for yourself – everyone has their own cabin. Obviously, in space, too, you can't always be in a good mood. It's just like at home: you have a headache, or you got some bad news, or you woke up on the wrong side of the bed. We see someone got the blues, we start talking to them, and gradually, we snap them out of it by finding a topic that might interest them – sports, children, family, school, movies, news – anything.

Related Article:

I Need More Space. Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin’s long road to the stars

How does time pass in space? How can one pass the time in the lockdown, if we talk about your experience at the ISS?

Time passes just like it does on Earth. Sometimes days go by fast, and sometimes they drag on. Clocks know no difference – for them, it's still 24 hours in a day. The most difficult period is passing the 'equator,' the halfway line of the expedition. Time drags, and it seems that there's still so much time left. When you get in a rut, you start thinking: "When will it end?" All kinds of things happen, but you still find strength and courage to keep on working – you just have to, no matter what.

What is most annoying in such conditions?

fyodor yurchikhin iss survival tips amid covid
Courtesy Fyodor Yurchikhin

For cosmonauts, it's zero gravity. You must've seen that beautiful footage of how we let a peanut float freely, and then catch it, or how a tin can or a spoon with jam is floating in front of you. We make these videos for you. Personally, I prefer to drink tea from a cup, not from a bag. I wish I could put a cup on a table, and it wouldn't drift off. And I wish I could sit down whenever I want to. I wish a piece of bread wouldn't fly away from me, and I didn't have to think about securing it somehow. These are the things you always wish for. Up there, you start to cherish earthly things.