NASA astronaut Christina Koch on surviving social distancing and future Mars missions

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Image: NASA | Jessica Meir

If anyone knows how to survive in isolation, it’s astronauts. They live for extended periods in microgravity with the company of only a few crewmates. NASA astronaut Christina Koch knows this better than anyone.

In February, she returned to Earth after a nearly year-long stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS). She came back to a world that, just a month or so after her arrival, started to look a lot different than when she left.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people around the world are practicing social distancing. As the days go by many are starting to go stir-crazy from sitting around the house and participating in Zoom meetings. Koch has some words of wisdom on how to survive social distancing. She sat down (virtually) with The Verge to share her thoughts.

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Fighting ‘Sensory Underload’

It’s hard to find stimulating activities to participate in while social distancing. There are only so many things to watch on Netflix before you’re binged-out. Likewise, hanging out with the same people (or by yourself) can get old quickly.

Koch calls this “sensory underload.” It’s something that she and fellow astronauts experience frequently on the ISS during lengthy missions. She says, “There is a change, I think, in the brain that happens when we don’t have new sensory inputs to process every day.”

Many people can likely relate to this feeling—one of dullness and boredom. Koch mentions that one of the best ways to combat sensory underload is to try new things. Right now, it can be difficult to even try and think of something new. However, there are plenty of options out there. For instance, Coursera is offering free classes on thousands of interesting topics.

While social distancing because of the virus is paramount right now, Koch likens it to what future astronauts might experience during an extended mission to Mars. As the scientific community starts to realistically consider how such a mission might go, this is something to keep in mind.

Koch says, “I would say, right now, probably everyone in America has some pretty good advice as well on surviving long-duration space missions. We’ve all had a little taste of it ourselves.”

Focusing on Health

Most everyone can relate to the fact that it’s all-too-easy to crack open a pack of Oreos and a bottle of wine and finish both in one night. After all, there’s nothing better to do, right?

Wrong. Koch notes that everyone should “recommit to the things that you know keep you healthy and sane during this time.”

She mentions both physical and mental health, saying that focusing on keeping yourself healthy is a great way to avoid quarantine boredom.

Meanwhile, Koch touts the importance of maintaining some semblance of a routine. Even if that just means getting dressed in the morning and setting a small, realistic goal, having a routine can help you feel a little more normal. Those needing help with that can turn to a digital assistant like Amazon’s Alexa.

Ultimately, social distancing isn’t going to last forever. Surviving it and coming out healthy and sane is all that matters. Considering that Koch can survive in space for a year, her tips are certainly worth heeding—even if you’re quarantined in full gravity.


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