Apr 14, 2020 - Science

The 250-mile view on the coronavirus

Illustration of a space man reading the newspaper in space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Astronauts are experiencing the pandemic from hundreds of miles above the planet — offering the Earth-bound a fresh perspective on dealing with distance, loneliness and helplessness.

What's happening: Astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner flew to the International Space Station last week.

  • Cassidy had no family or friends on hand to view the launch from Kazakhstan due to social distancing concerns and travel restrictions.
  • "We knew as a crew we were going to be in quarantine ... those exact weeks, but we didn't know the whole rest of the world was going to join us," Cassidy said during a press conference from the space station.
  • Two other astronauts, Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, are heading back to Earth this week after months in space and will arrive on a very different planet than the one they left.
"It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below. We can tell you that 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 both of us have been up here."
— Jessica Meir during a press conference

Astronauts who have been away from their families for months at a time even in the best situations describe a loneliness brought on by being physically separated from the people they care for.

  • "When you are on the ground, you just wish you were back in space because it's so cool, but when you're in space, almost all you can think about is actually your family," former NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy told Axios.

Context: Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union from the space station Mir. He left Earth from the Soviet Union and returned to a newly independent Kazakhstan months later than he initially expected to come home.

  • NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was the only American off-Earth during 9/11, snapping photos of the aftermath from above and mourning a former classmate who was the pilot of the flight that crashed into the Pentagon.
  • Other astronauts have watched from above as hurricanes and other natural disasters impact their families on Earth.

The big picture: In many ways, our experiences on Earth today mirror the experiences astronauts in orbit have been living through for decades.

  • For some, the loneliness, helplessness and isolation are eased through acts of service and keeping busy, lessons we could incorporate during quarantine here on the planet.
  • "You try to keep your spirits up during isolation," former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao told Axios. "You do things for others."

Go deeper: The coronavirus pandemic, as seen from space

Go deeper