Two decades after the launch of the International Space Station and the 50th anniversary of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, the latest ISS commander believes there is “almost zero chance” of COVID-19 getting into space, writes Taylor Edgar.
Speaking in a press conference on board the International Space Station, Commander Chris Cassidy was confident the virus had not managed to hitch a ride into space with him or his Russian counterparts.
During the live conference beamed to Earth, Commander Cassidy who is taking the reins for Expedition 62, said he had left Houston at the end of February. At that point, Covid-19 was barely making a ripple in American news cycles or commanding much attention at higher levels of government.
Commented Commander Cassidy: “I remember walking off the plane in Moscow and wondering if there was going to be testing. There were some medical personnel, but the process of going through Customs was the same as normal. Then later, I did get to spend some time with my wife in that first couple of days in Moscow.”
Shortly after that, there was a dramatic shift in attitudes and astronauts were prohibited from leaving their training base 30 miles outside of Moscow.
Recalled Commander Cassidy: “From the first week of March until launch I did not come in contact with anyone other than those immediate people involved with the launch preparation. And those same people were also in the same quarantine as I was. We were really strict about it. Normally when you get to Baikonur Cosmodrome (in Kazakhstan), there are press conferences and bosses and managers from all the space cooperation businesses and agencies. But none of those people was allowed into the building this time. Any media or any state commission conferences were done by video camera. There was virtually no interaction between us as a crew and the outside population.”
While he did accept there was a possibility, he felt the pre-flight precautions and health screening meant there was zero chance of the crew being infected with Covid-19.
Asked if this launch was different from his previous forays into space, the Maine-born astronaut admitted the pandemic had had an impact. He and his fellow astronauts usually have nine months to a year’s notice of going into the quarantine of space. This time they did not reckon on being joined by the entire planet.
“So that makes it hard. Leaving all that behind, I do feel that my heart goes out to all those people dealing with it. I only spent a few weeks on Earth during that period. But that was enough to know that it is challenging in many ways, and it is often the second and third-order of effects that I found unexpected. Like what it does to kids in schools, in sports, in graduations and people leaving college looking for their future job,” said Commander Cassidy.
What had not altered about this mission to the ISS was the launch. “I can tell you one thing; no matter how many times you ride on a rocket to space, it never gets old, or ‘I know how to do this,” joked Commander Cassidy.
The orbital outpost press conference was the start of a six and a half month mission for Cassidy and the end of Expedition 61 for American astronauts, Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan. They have now returned to Earth on board the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft.
Offering his thoughts on tackling the social isolation brought about by the pandemic, Flight Engineer Drew Morgan said astronauts were very good at living in isolation.
He advised: “I think one of the most important things is to live by a routine - that’s what we do up here - we have a schedule and we follow it to the tee and make sure that we are the most effective and efficient with our time, our exercise, our personal hygiene and our sleep. Everything is scheduled out, so sticking to a schedule is very important.”
Another essential aspect of life on the space station that can apply to Earth is being ‘a crewmate’ and thinking about how your actions affect the actions of others. This cause and effect reflection was in the astronauts' minds all the time while in space.
“We are constantly evaluating that we are respectful of others at all times and that can be very tough to do when you are living a long time in close quarters,” said Morgan.
His fellow crew member, Jessica Meir agreed and expressed some misgivings about returning to Earth amidst the pandemic.
She said: “I think for me it will still be nice to go back and see some familiar places and some familiar faces. It will certainly be very difficult for me to not give hugs to my family and friends. That’s something about being up here for seven months and being the type of person that I am. It is going to be difficult for me to do that. \But I know that will be part of the game for a while.”
In some ways, Meir felt he and her fellow astronauts could feel more isolated on Earth than in orbit above the planet.
“We were talking about that just before this conference. I think I will feel more isolated on the Earth than I did up here just because that is part of our expected routine and we are so busy with so many other amazing pursuits,” she continued.
“And we have this incredible vantage point of the Earth below; we don’t feel so much of that isolation. When you are back in your homes and the kind of isolation that everyone is dealing with right now, you can see all of those people but can’t do anything with them or experience them at all. I think that makes it even more difficult. So we will see how it goes and how I adjust, but it will, of course, be wonderful to see family and friends at least virtually and from a distance for now.”
Meanwhile, NASA has just announced that their engineers have received government approval to roll out a NASA-designed high-pressure ventilator to treat Covid-19 patients. The ventilator design is now being offered by NASA to medical equipment manufacturers under a royalty-free license during the pandemic.