Watching coronavirus outbreak from space a 'surreal' experience, astronauts say

From left to right, NASA astronauts Andrew Morgan, Jessica Meir and Chris Cassidy answer questions from the media on April 10.
From left to right, NASA astronauts Andrew Morgan, Jessica Meir and Chris Cassidy answer questions from the media on April 10. (Image credit: NASA)

As one crew replaces another on the International Space Station and space enthusiasts around the world prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13, three NASA astronauts in orbit are keeping close watch on the coronavirus outbreak on their home planet.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy arrived at the orbiting laboratory Thursday (April 9), while his colleagues Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan are scheduled to return to Earth on April 17 . The trio spoke with reporters today (April 10) to mark the crew swap and discuss what it's been like being in space during the coronavirus pandemic. While Cassidy launched to space with some experience of what life has been like on Earth during the spread of the COVID-19, Meir and Morgan have been in space for the duration of the outbreak.

"It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below," Meir said via a space-to-ground video link. Reporters spoke with the crew via a phone bridge. 

While it's difficult to even imagine that such things are happening on the planet that they can see below, Meir said, she's still excited to return home, even though it won't be what she expected when she first launched. 

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"I think for me it'll still be nice to go back and to see some familiar places and some familiar faces," Meir said. However, she said that after seven months in space, "it will be very difficult to not be able to give hugs to my family and friends."

"I think that I will actually feel more isolated on the Earth than I did up here because that's just part of our expected routine up here," Meir said. 

Morgan said that having that routine is an integral part of how astronauts handle the isolation and other difficulties of living and working in space.

"Our exercise, our personal hygiene, our sleep, everything is scheduled out," he said. Another skill he said he's been honing in space is "being a good crewmate … constantly evaluating to make sure we're respectful of others at all times."

But even with the routines of human spaceflight, "this mission, it does feel different," Cassidy, now on his third flight, said. Before launch, he and his crewmates discussed how they long knew they were going to be in quarantine, he said, "but we didn't know the whole rest of the world was going to join us."

However, Cassidy added that, while this mission and the launch was certainly different because of restrictions surrounding the pandemic, he can't wait to greet his friends and fellow NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who are set to launch to the space station aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon during his time in space, no earlier than May. 

Crisis and spaceflight

The crew switch comes as NASA prepares to mark 50 years since the Apollo 13 mission launched to space on April 11, 1970. The mission famously failed to land the astronauts on the moon because of an oxygen tank explosion but the astronauts managed to return safely home. 

For Morgan, this is a particularly poignant anniversary given the pandemic.

"Now there is a crisis, and the crisis is on Earth," Morgan said. Fifty years ago, "the flight control team [and] mission control on the ground prevailed, through their ingenuity, their professionalism, and brought the crew home safely."

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Morgan sees his flight in much the same way. 

"Once again, mission control centers, the flight control team are going to bring us home safely. They have been affected by this just the same as everyone; it has changed the way that mission control operations work," Morgan said. "They're actually doing handover between shifts between two different rooms to minimize the contact. Yet here they are persevering and, through their ingenuity and their professionalism, they're going to return us to Earth safely, just like their predecessors did 50 years ago." 

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.

  • Truthseeker007
    What does she mean she won't be able to give hugs to her family members when she gets back? People are crazy if they don't give there own family hugs. They can shove the social distancing up their butts with my own family members. I don't live in fear like most of the world. It's ridiculous.