Chris Cassidy is going into quarantine—but for a NASA astronaut preparing to launch to the International Space Station, that’s just part of the routine. Pandemic or not, NASA astronauts are always isolated for two weeks before launch to ensure they don't carry any unwanted bugs to the space station, a process NASA calls "health stabilization." The space agency also said that it is considering testing Cassidy and his crew members for COVID-19 before they fly, just to be sure.
On April 9, Cassidy, a U.S. Navy captain and former SEAL, will join cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket to launch to the ISS. The trio will live and work on board the space station for six months as part of Expedition 63, which Cassidy will command. The voyage will mark Cassidy’s third trip into space, having logged a total of 182 days in orbit during a 2009 space shuttle flight and a 2013 stay aboard the ISS.
In a telephone interview from Star City, Russia, where Cassidy is preparing for launch, the astronaut discussed his upcoming mission—and how a disruption like the COVID-19 pandemic could affect his time in Earth’s orbiting laboratory. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
This will be the first time that you've been back to the International Space Station since 2013. What are you most looking forward to about returning?
I'm really looking forward to seeing familiar faces—floating through the hatch and seeing Drew and Jessica [NASA astronauts Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir] and giving them a big hug. That's a great moment. Those emotions, if you see them on TV—the smiles and the laughing—are real. We're friends, colleagues, and coworkers, but also we're humans who are experiencing something super cool together. That first couple hours, I can't wait to experience that.
Of course, looking out the window is always fantastic, but we'll have limited handover time [before Morgan and Meir return to Earth], so I just want to soak up their experience for that week before they disappear on me a few days later.
I have to imagine that now is a fairly unusual time to be preparing for launch, given the COVID-19 pandemic. What kinds of challenges has that posed to you and your colleagues?
Interestingly enough, the preparation has been no different, and the quarantine for us as crewmembers has been very similar to what I'm used to for quarantine. The real weird part is everybody else also being in quarantine. The social distancing concept is not just pertaining to the three crewmembers, but it's everybody.
The other part that's not so operational, but more on the support side, is trying to navigate through all the uncertainties of which people will get to come to launch: friends, family, NASA support personnel. All that kind of stuff has been quite dynamic, as I'm sure you've been experiencing in your own life over the last seven days.
Social distancing is requiring many people to work from home for the first time. The ISS is arguably the most extreme work-from-home environment on or around Earth. Any advice for people?
(laughs) Well, setting a routine, I think, is the biggest thing. We have no choice in that matter; the mission control folks tell us what that routine is going to be. But I have experienced that in the military on deployment. There were times on my Navy deployments where I had a lull in operational activity, and we found that it was really healthy for the group to stay in some sort of normal routine.
If everybody just kind of lounges around and doesn't get up until 11:00, and nobody's brushing their hair or their teeth, not only do you look crappy and you feel crappy, but you just get in that funk. So sticking to a Monday-through-Friday routine is probably the most basic thing that I would recommend to folks.
Given that you're going to be up on the ISS until October, what’s going through your mind? How are you going to deal with the separation from events on the surface?
In all likelihood, I'll come back to Earth in October, and knock on wood, the pandemic will be kind of behind us, and people will start trying to get back to normal existence, much like in the months after 9/11. It took some time, but eventually, life returned to semi-normal, or a new defined normal.
It’ll be this whole spring and summer that will be really interesting for me. I'll be super busy, of course. I'll be mostly by myself on the space station and hopefully welcoming my colleagues Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, from the SpaceX [Crew Dragon] mission. So I will have a full plate, and my mind will be engaged, but I'm still going to be talking, communicating, and emailing with my family and loved ones and friends. I'll be living vicariously through them.
I certainly am not going to be disengaged from it and think, Oh, it's not my problem. It's certainly my problem because my family is living it, and my friends and my coworkers are living it in real time.