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COVID-19: The latest from The World

Need tips on surviving self-isolation? Ask this astronaut.

American astronaut Cady Coleman lived on the International Space Station for nearly six months in 2011. During that time, she developed some techniques for staying connected to loved ones even while she was far away — techniques that are helpful whether you’re living in space, or practicing social distancing in the age of the coronavirus.

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NASA astronaut Catherine "Cady" Coleman, Expedition 26 flight engineer, is pictured near a Japanese-designed metal cylinder floating freely in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station in this photo provided by NASA and taken March 1, 2011.

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When American astronaut Cady Coleman was living on the International Space Station, she’d often look out the window and back down at Earth.

“You look down, and Earth is right there,” she told The World. “It’s only 250 miles away. It’s really not so far away. It’s just — you can’t get there.” 

Coleman lived on the space station for nearly six months in 2011. During that time, she developed some techniques for staying connected to loved ones even while she was far away — techniques that are helpful whether you’re living in space, or practicing social distancing in the age of the coronavirus.

“Holding onto things and doing things that make you remember who you are … I think it really helps to do that,” Coleman said.

For her, that meant calling family and friends regularly from the special phone aboard the station. It also included keeping up with her band. 

Coleman is a flute player, and she’s played in not one, but two astronaut bands. When she was in space, she devised a creative way to practice along with them. 

“I took the MP3s that I had of our band playing different songs. I’d put it on the computer, and I’d … listen to that music and play along as if we were in the same place together — and it made me feel as if we were,” Coleman said.

Coleman says another aspect of training for space prepared her for social distancing now: focusing on the mission at hand.

On the space station, her days were filled with tasks that didn’t necessarily have immediate, observable payoffs: organizing food, doing maintenance on the space station or conducting experiments. 

Coleman says she had to remind herself that all of these things, over time, would contribute to the mission of setting the stage for future human exploration of the moon and Mars.

That’s a helpful framework to have in mind now, she says, when it can feel like a burden to have to wash your hands one more time or call a loved one and discourage them from going out. 

But every little action we take today makes a difference in the future, she says.

“The steps may not be … exciting. We may not be able to stand up and say: Oh, I figured out the vaccine for the virus,” Coleman said.

“But the fact that we stay home, the fact that we figure out how to help other people? Every one of those actions counts. There’s no question in my mind,” she continued.

In other words — washing your hands isn’t rocket science. But, right now, it’s all part of the mission.

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