Four launches – including two historic missions from US soil – to the International Space Station, as planned, and the crews managed to stay safe on their voyages to and from Earth.
Quarantine has become the new norm for many in the last year, but has long been part of the routine for launching astronauts into space.
“NASA has a stable quarantine plan for a long time,” said Robert Mulcahi, a flight surgeon with the Health Stabilization Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This is nothing new to us. NASA has introduced pre-quarantine, starting with the Apollo 14 mission (in 1971), as we saw some infectious diseases in flight or in the pre-press period for some of Apollo̵
Some of Apollo’s astronauts have suffered upper respiratory tract infections and gastroenteritis, so preliminary quarantine has been introduced. While the specifics of pre-space quarantine have changed over the years, the main tenants are the same, Mulcahi said.
Pre-flight quarantine can help prevent diseases such as colds and flu from outside our planet. The health and well-being of the crew are always paramount, according to the agency.
Astronauts and those in the health stabilization program receive vaccines for preventable infectious diseases.
Before the pandemic, astronauts launching to the International Space Station will be quarantined for two weeks. They focused on things that have become commonplace for everyone – social distance and good respiratory hygiene and hands.
This included ensuring that all people who came into contact with the crew knew what good quarantine looked like – something we are all already familiar with, Mulcahi said.
Starting during a pandemic
The crew performed their usual two-week quarantine and the launch went according to plan, albeit with some changes. Travel restrictions prevented some of the astronauts’ families, media and industry employees from attending the launch. Everyone involved in the shooting was spotted holding 6 feet apart and wearing masks.
Prior to quarantine, the astronauts followed the recommendations of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the coronavirus. The members of the team stayed at their crew’s quarters in Baikonur, had no direct contact with anyone who had not been previously subordinated to the flight surgeons, and focused on preparing for their flight, studying, resting, exercising and video chatting with friends and family.
On Earth, NASA ground teams such as flight and mission control were also affected by the pandemic. Transfer between teams in shifts takes place in two different rooms to minimize contact.
This was Cassidy’s third space flight, but the early days of the pandemic were already shaping his pre-flight experience.
Just days later, NASA astronauts Dr. Andrew “Drew” Morgan and Jessica Meyer were due to return to Earth after spending nine and seven months on the space station, respectively. They returned to a different world from the one they started from, where the coronavirus was not a problem.
The agency has already created a protocol for returning astronauts, which still includes a medical examination after landing by flight doctors. Doctors and other NASA teams are helping astronauts re-acclimatize Earth’s gravity by lifting them up and walking shortly after landing. In the following weeks, they are monitored to make sure they are healthy.
This time, the protocols were more extensive, including CDC recommendations on infection control during medical testing and post-flight readaptation. Social distancing, hand washing, and extensive surface cleaning were applied, and the crew was limited to who they came in contact with. All sick members of the NASA team were encouraged to stay home.
NASA astronauts Bob Benken and Doug Hurley launched on May 30 as part of Demo-2, then Crew-1, carrying NASA astronauts Victor Glover Jr., Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Research Astronaut Sochi in November.
In October, there was another launch from Baikonur with Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov, as well as NASA astronaut Kate Rubins.
Benken and Hurley return to Earth in August, and Cassidy, Wagner and Ivanishin return in October. There are currently seven people on board the space station, including Crew-1 and Baikonur’s previous launch.
How the pandemic changed the quarantine of astronauts
To ensure that everyone was prepared for the launch of Demo-2 in May, the existing health stabilization program was strengthened due to the pandemic.
The third week was added to the standard 14-day quarantine period. This is called “soft quarantine”, where astronauts’ training and activities are reduced so that they can have additional protection and limit exposure. Astronauts began wearing N95 masks if they came in contact with anyone outside their small quarantine balloon.
The number of people who had close contact with the astronauts during the preliminary quarantine was kept to a minimum, including only those who had an essential function for the mission.
They also conducted daily health tests, starting 21 days before the start, so that everyone in quarantine could ask about their temperature and see if they had any symptoms of an infectious disease. Then, 14 days before the launch, they conducted personal temperature checks and health examinations for anyone who needed to come into contact with the astronauts, Mulcahi said.
Covid-19 tests were also applied to astronauts and their key close contacts during quarantine. Instead of meeting people in the same room, some meetings were held with a glass wall between the astronauts and NASA staff. This is similar to what is already part of the Baikonur trial for the launch of the Russian Soyuz, Mulcahi said.
The latest change is that they encourage anyone eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.
Given the fact that so many people live in quarantine situations, astronauts were allowed to quarantine with their families as long as their family members met the quarantine requirements.
For astronauts who want or need to quarantine on site, both the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center have good housing. The astronauts have separate rooms such as living quarters, kitchens and a common area for meetings or conferences. The astronauts’ quarters at the Kennedy Space Center are historic; the astronauts have remained there since the time of Apollo.
“It’s like staying in a middle-class hotel somewhere comfortable and it prepares them to be prepared for their mission,” Mulcahi said.
Mulcahy and others in the program are closely monitoring the pandemic in case other changes need to be made. He believes some of the changes, such as daily health examinations and crew visits behind a glass wall, are likely to remain in place for added safety even after the pandemic ends.
The quarantine program is unlikely to change much when it is time for the first woman and the next man to land on the moon in 2024 through the Artemis program.
Keeping launches and landings on schedule during a pandemic is key to achieving important milestones, such as NASA-SpaceX launches. It is also important for crews to rotate through the space station. These crews maintain the space station and conduct hundreds of scientific experiments that have many benefits for humanity.
And that, too, was an inspiration, a spark of hope, a reason to keep watching and believing in the triumph of the human spirit.
“The opportunity to participate and help Bob and Doug get to the space station for the Demo-2 or Crew-1 mission, these are the big stages that stand out,” Mulcahy said.
“These missions are exciting because they bring back this ability for human spaceflight in the United States, something we haven’t had since 2011 when the shuttle took off. And it’s really inspiring for people all over the country and around the world. I think that the great benefit of these missions starting in a very gloomy year. “