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'Going back to a different planet': Astronauts will return to Earth soon amid the coronavirus pandemic

Three spaceflyers will soon come home to a changed world.

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka have been living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) since September of last year. They have therefore experienced the coronavirus outbreak, which began in China in December, only from afar.

But the trio returns to Earth on April 17, and Meir said she and her colleagues know that things down here aren't like they used to be.

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"It is very strange and a bit surreal for us to be seeing it all unfold when we've been up here for the entire duration of what's been going on down on the ground," Meir said during a March 30 video interview with Physiologist Magazine that aired on NASA TV. "And it seems that we will be completely going back to a different planet."

But Meir, Morgan and Skripochka are well prepared to deal with the stay-at-home orders that await them here on Earth. After all, they've been enduring much more stringent isolation for the last six-plus months  aboard the ISS.

Astronauts manage this isolation in ways that many of us are now very familiar with. For example, Meir said that she and her fellow crewmembers exercise daily, not only to stave off the bone loss and muscle wasting that accompany long-duration spaceflight but also to maintain their mental health. And the astronauts keep in touch with friends and family via weekly video chats.

"So, I think all of those kinds of things — just to make sure that you're still sticking to your routine, maintaining your own psychological well-being — those are some things that can really help out," Meir said. "And I think that they're coming in handy for people on the ground as well as astronauts up here on the space station."

Three other spaceflyers will head up to the ISS before Meir, Morgan and Skripochka come down. NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are scheduled to launch toward the orbiting lab on April 9. The trio's arrival will bring the ISS up to six crewmembers, though the station will be fully staffed  for just a week.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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