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Tired of self-isolating? Astronauts are used to it

NASA released photos of the different Apollo moon landing sites. The images are individual pictures "stitched together," according to a news release from NASA. The images were taken by the 12 astronauts who have walked on the moon to document their time in space. (NASA/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

As many Floridians and Americans continue to self-isolate in their homes, many for the first time, astronauts have a leg up, as they’ve all gone through quarantine before.

blog post from Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex explains that, in order to prevent the contraction and spread of any illness, astronauts are held in isolation for seven days prior to their launch as part of the Crew Health Stabilization Program.

Michael Lopez-Alegria, a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions and one International Space Station mission, recalls the first time he quarantined prior to launch.

“My first flight tied a NASA record because we scrubbed six times before we actually launched … We were in quarantine for a much longer period because of all of those attempts,” said Lopez-Alegria, who will be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame this year. “It’s kind of nice to not have to worry about everyday things in life like preparing meals. We were allowed visitation by our families, who also had to go through a medical screening.”

Before launching to board the ISS for more than seven months, the veteran astronaut had to isolate for two weeks. This wasn’t nearly as long as the Apollo 11 astronauts’ quarantine following their return from the moon — 21 days — for fear of “moon germs.”

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During his time in space, away from family and friends, Lopez-Alegria said that he didn’t feel as isolated as one might expect.

“We were always in contact with somebody, either mission control or we had access to what we call the IP phone. You could call somebody on Earth whenever you had satellite coverage,” he said. “Looking out the window and seeing the planet is very somehow comforting.”

However, Lopez-Alegria said that his times aboard NASA’s space shuttles and the ISS lacked some of the simple pleasures Earth has to offer.

“The feel of fresh air or the smell of rain. The smells tend to be repetitive, depending on what you’re eating for dinner,” Lopez-Alegria said. “I missed having a glass of wine with dinner. The food is not terrible. It’s nutritious, but it’s repetitive. I like to cook and there is no cooking.”

At least those quarantining on Earth can still go outside for a walk to enjoy some of those natural sensations, or enjoy a beverage with a home-cooked meal. However, Lopez-Alegria pointed out an important distinction between a space mission and this ongoing pandemic.

“I think the biggest difference is the uncertainty of how long it’s going to last. On a mission, you know how long it’s going to be,” he said. “In both cases, I’d say there’s a sense of greater purpose. We’re all doing this for a reason because we’re trying to flatten the curve and stop the spread.”

Although Lopez-Alegria is retired from space flight, he continues consulting and public speaking work with his independent business, MLA Space, often working from home when he’s not traveling. The astronaut recommended that those who are new to the practice achieve productivity by waking up at the same time, getting dressed, making the bed and sticking to a meal schedule.

A positive outlook can also be beneficial, Lopez-Alegria said.

“I would recommend that people stay optimistic and realize that there’s a purpose behind this and we’re going to all get through it,” he said. “There will be new normals along the way, but it’s important to not stare at your navel and start worrying about things, but to keep your head up and look forward.”

To learn more about astronaut isolation, visit kennedyspacecenter.com. For information about Lopez-Alegria, visit nasa.gov and mlaspace.com.

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© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel