Station crew ready for return to Earth, and coronavirus


Expedition 62 crew members Drew Morgan, Oleg Skripochka and Jessica Meir pose inside the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Nearly seven months aboard the International Space Station may be an extreme case of social distancing and isolation, but astronaut Jessica Meir says she expects to feel more isolated than ever when she returns next week to a planet in the grip of the coronavirus.

“It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below,” Meir told CBS News during an orbital news conference Friday. “The Earth still looks just as stunning as always from up here, so it’s difficult to believe all the changes that have taken place (since launch).

“It certainly will be very difficult for me to not be able to give some hugs to my family and friends. That’s something after being up here for seven months, and being the type of person that I am, that’s going to be difficult for me. … I think that I will actually feel more isolated on the Earth than I did up here, just because that’s part of our expected routine up here.”

She said the isolation of a long-duration space station flight is offset by the crew’s busy schedule, demanding research and the spectacular views of Earth.

But “when you’re back in your homes and the kind of isolation that everybody is dealing with right now, and you can see all of those things, or all those people, but you just can’t do anything with them or experience them at all, I think that it makes it even more difficult.”

“So we’ll see how it goes and how I adjust,” she said. “But it will, of course, be wonderful to see some family and friends, at least virtually and from a distance for now.”

Meir was launched to the station last Sept. 25 aboard the Russian Soyuz MS-15/61S spacecraft along with vehicle commander Oleg Skripochka and United Arab Emirates guest cosmonaut Hazzaa Ali Almansoori. Almansoori spent a week aboard the lab and returned to Earth with another crew.

Skripochka, Meir and physician-astronaut Drew Morgan, launched to the station on another Soyuz last July, have had the station to themselves since Feb. 6 when another three-person crew departed. But on Thursday, they were joined by Soyuz MS-16/62S commander Anatoli Ivanishin, Ivan Vagner and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, the station’s next long-duration crew.

After a week-long handover, Skripochka, Meir and Morgan plan to undock and land next Friday on the steppe of Kazakhstan.

At touchdown, Meir will have logged 205 days in space, participating in three all-female spacewalks along the way. Morgan’s total time off planet will stand at 272 days. He participated in seven spacewalks during his extended mission.

“As an emergency physician, I understand what it’s like to be at the doorway of a hospital, or a field hospital, or the frontlines of combat, and that’s exactly the situation that physicians and first responders and healthcare workers are finding themselves in across the globe right now,” Morgan said.

“I’m very proud to be part of that profession, but I’ll have to admit that there’s even a little bit of guilt that I am as separated from it as I could be, and will only return to the middle of this in the next week.”

Space station astronauts expect changes when they return to Earth after a half year or more in space, but the impact of the coronavirus has been “very hard to fathom.”

“Sometimes our news is a little bit delayed and so as we’re watching things, we’re getting it through the eyes of the news, and talking to our friends and families back home and trying to paint a picture,” he said. “It’s just hard for us really to understand what has transpired and how life will be different for us when we return to the Earth.”

His advice to friends and family struggling with isolation is to try “thinking about how your actions affect the actions of others. It’s something we do all the time up here and are constantly evaluating to make sure that we’re respectful of others at all times. And that can be very tough to do when you’re living for a long time in close quarters.”

Skripochka plans to turn over command of the space station to Cassidy next week. A former Navy SEAL making his third spaceflight, Cassidy said he and his two Russian crewmates were in strict quarantine starting in March. While quarantine is standard practice in the weeks leading up to launch, Cassidy said nothing was left to chance this time around.

“This mission, it does feel different, I will tell you, leaving Earth amidst the global crisis and the shutdown, worldwide quarantine. We knew as a crew we were going to be in quarantine … but we didn’t know the whole rest of the world was going to join us.”

From the first week of March after he had flown to Moscow for final training, “I did not come in contact with anyone other than those immediate people involved with the launch preparation,” he said. “And those people were also in the same quarantine as I was. And we were really strict about it.

“There was virtually no interaction between us as a crew and the outside population,” he added. “Now, anything’s possible, we know lots of cases where people have thought they were good to go, but it snuck into their world. But I really think that’s almost zero percent chance for our crew.”