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Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, who passed away last week, experienced a unique kind of isolation as he circled the Moon alone. (credit: NASA)

Magnificent isolation: what we can learn from astronauts about social distancing and sheltering in space

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The emergence of the novel coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, has led to a global pandemic and a call for individuals, in the name of overall public health and an attempt to prevent national medical systems from being overwhelmed with too many patients at once, to self-isolate, self-quarantine, and practice social distancing. Many of us are confronted, for perhaps the only time in our lives, with an uncertain span of time in solitude.

Although this is the first time we’ve seen this particular phenomenon, social distancing isn’t a new invention. Humans have always had good reasons to withdraw from society, often for the greater good. Among the champions of isolation and social distancing are astronauts and cosmonauts—including the late Al Worden—whose time in space has often been spent in extended periods of cramped loneliness, away from family and friends. They can serve as inspiration in these difficult times.

Many of us are confronted, for perhaps the only time in our lives, with an uncertain span of time in solitude.

As a cultural anthropologist, my research focuses on human behavior, particularly types of behavior shared by groups, and it is clear that social distancing is unusual. Human beings are gregarious creatures and we do tend to be found in “corporate bodies,” ranging from small bands of 30 to 50 people all the way up to huge cities filled with millions. In band societies, everyone knows everyone else and there’s generally shared work, shared play, and lots of shared gossip. In larger societies, where we may be surrounded by virtual strangers, celebrities seem to fill in as the people everyone knows, giving us membership in a community where celebrities are “shared points of reference” (Hermes and Kooijmann 2016). I may not know you well, but we can probably talk to each other about Sigourney Weaver and Tom Hanks.

Living in isolation, or even in smaller groups, is the exception rather than the rule. Some societies expect people to live in nuclear families of parents and children, but extended families are more common, and even nuclear families are frequently part of larger networks composed of families and friends. Small group living tends to be temporary in nature with specific purposes in mind. A group of five hunters may stalk their prey for several weeks, camping together and sharing fruits and nuts foraged along the way, but they will return to the larger group with the spoils of the hunt.

Permanent living in smaller groups is uncommon, but does sometimes happen if the goal is to contribute to a larger purpose or to sacrifice in the name of a greater good. Many religious traditions, including Buddhists, Christians, and others, have an idea of monasticism, where individuals dedicate themselves to a religious life, leaving ordinary society behind and living either alone, as in the case of hermits, or in monasteries, nunneries, et cetera, with like-minded spiritual companions. Some religious orders are quite small, while others, like the Drepung Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, hold thousands. Utopian groups and religious sects may break off as well, forming intentional communities who see themselves as set apart from the world around them. In most of these cases, separation from the world is seen as a sacrifice, but one worth doing in pursuit of a better objective, such as salvation or nirvana.

The goal of discovery has also led scientists and explorers to self-isolate. Once again a sacrifice is being made, but in these cases the hope is that physical removal from one’s larger community will benefit that community as a whole. Expeditions to mountaintops, seabeds, polar deserts, and impenetrable jungles have led to new understandings in physics, biology, chemistry, anthropology, geology, and other disciplines. McMurdo Station in Antarctica started as one of these small, isolated camps and has grown into a thriving scientific base, with a population that ranges from 180 persons in the winter to around 1000 in the summer (US Antarctic Program). Being in larger groups may relieve stress for participants, but a counterexample comes from the 2018 news stories about Sergei Savitsky stabbing his sole companion Oleg Beloguzov (Weisberger 2018) at the remote Russian Antarctic station Bellingshausen (Bostock 2018) after six months of isolation in the tiny shared living space. No evidence confirms rumors that Beloguzov had been giving away the endings of Savitsky’s books.

Human spaceflight is another cultural environment where we see people living in isolation. The space capsules occupied by Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard needed to be small due to issues of weight and aerodynamics, but the isolation experienced by these space travelers was very short-lived. Shepard’s whole trip in Freedom 7, for instance, lasted just 15 minutes. As the American space program advanced, however, so did the necessary isolation of astronaut participants. Gemini 7’s Jim Lovell and Frank Borman spent two weeks in close proximity, isolated from the rest of the world in a space famously described as being like “the front seat of a Volkswagen.” When they splashed down on December 18, 1965, newspapers reported that “Borman immediately requested a helicopter pickup from the capsule. Neither he nor Lovell wanted to stay in that cramped capsule a minute longer than they had to after two weeks.” (Elwood, Indiana Call-Leader, 1965)

Staring at the Earth was “mind altering” and led Worden to the knowledge that “(i)f humans didn’t unite and organize their lives…we’d be in trouble”.

Although Borman and Lovell were quite isolated during their two weeks, their experience falls short of the isolation experienced by certain Command Module Pilots during the Apollo program who stayed behind, absolutely alone, while their fellow crewmembers landed and walked on the Moon. Michael Collins, the best known of these socially distant astronauts, spent a day orbiting the Moon 30 times in complete solitude. A few missions later, Apollo 15’s Al Worden, who died on March 17, became (and remains) the Guinness Book of World Records’ “Most Isolated Human Being.” He was nearly 385,000 kilometers from anyone on the Earth, and, at times, 3,596.4 kilometers from Jim Irwin and David Scott, who were walking on the Moon’s surface (McWhirter 2017).

In Worden’s memoir Falling to Earth, the astronaut recounts his days of solitude, an experience that was filled with straightforward, practical tasks, but also led to inspirational thoughts. Some of his experiences may serve to help those of us who need a guide in these uncertain times.

First, Worden’s time spent alone as a young person prepared him to be self-sufficient in space. He writes, “I didn’t feel lonely or isolated. I’d grown up able to take care of myself.” He was also able to appreciate a chance to be alone for a while, explaining, “I was fascinated by what I was seeing and happy that Dave and Jim had landed safely—but glad to be rid of them for a while too.” It helped to have a plan in mind with lots of tasks; Worden “had a meticulously choreographed three days ahead of me.” Finally, he frequently allowed himself time to contemplate the wonders of nature—in his case, he spent time looking at the different phases of the Earth, stating, “only when I looked back at the Earth rising did I understand how far I had traveled. I was isolated, with only the radio to stay in touch.” Staring at the Earth was “mind altering” and led him to the knowledge that “(i)f humans didn’t unite and organize their lives…we’d be in trouble” (Worden 2012). Worden’s isolation lasted only a few days, but his experience leaves us with some nice guidelines about the right mindset needed for social distancing.

Anthropologist Jack Stuster’s guidance is also useful. Stuster had ten astronauts in different long-term missions on the International Space Station (whose smallest crew ever was two persons and whose crew sometimes balloons to nine) keep diaries, whose contents were encrypted and electronically sent back down to him for analysis. These astronauts were not spending days in space, but instead months at a time. Stuster’s goal was to analyze what he could learn about ISS culture from the diaries, focusing on topics like medical issues, exercise, group interactions, food and recreation. He took an applied approach to his research, using his analysis to write a 2010 report with recommendations to NASA for improving the experiences of space travelers on the station, and the stress of isolation was one of the major issues.

Stuster makes it clear to NASA that isolation can lead to problems. He writes, “The exaggeration of trivial issues is a well-known principle of life in isolation and confinement. Minor annoyances, differences of opinion, and perceived transgressions that would be inconsequential under normal conditions can be magnified by isolated and confined personnel into issues of monumental importance.” Astronauts, known to be perfectionists, may be more susceptible to this tendency, and he explains that problems to do with isolation tend to increase in the third quarter of a mission, when the astronaut is almost, but not quite, ready to return home. Stuster uses the work of John Rohrer to describe some responses to long-duration isolation, including “an initial stage of heightened anxiety; a second stage of settling into a routine, which is accompanied by depression; and a third stage of anticipation, which is characterized by emotional outbursts and aggressiveness.”

Frank White’s work on the Overview Effect demonstrated the power of the view of the Earth from space to help some astronauts feel, for the first time, how joined we really are. Pandemics, in their own more problematic way, also show we are all connected.

Fortunately, Stuster has some recommendations for alleviating some of this anxiety, including the even distribution of tedious tasks among the crew, assigning work with tangible results, providing an interesting variety of food (with some surprises), allowing for crew celebrations and gatherings, permitting crew to be in frequent electronic contact with family and friends on the ground, and scheduling events in a way that helps mark the passage of time. Some of these recommendations may be useful to those of us on Earth living with small “crews” of family or housemates for extended periods during the pandemic.

Sheltering in place on Earth (as opposed to sheltering in space) may feel isolating, but in reality, we truly are all connected. As far as we know, Earth is the only planet with life, and every one of us behind a locked apartment door with Clorox wipes at the ready is aware at this unique moment in history of being linked to everyone else. Frank White’s work on the Overview Effect demonstrated the power of the view of the Earth from space to help some astronauts feel, for the first time, how joined we really are. Pandemics, in their own more problematic way, also show we are all connected. It is part of who we are as a species, though, from monks to polar explorers to astronauts, to be willing to self-isolate for the sake of something greater, whether nirvana, science, or a flattened curve of disease transmission. A new crew, Expedition 63, is due to fly to the ISS on April 9, and it is possible their mission will be delayed or changed because of the coronavirus pandemic. As she awaited their arrival on March 16, astronaut Jessica Meir, despite being in isolation aboard the ISS, tweeted, “From up here, it is easy to see that we are truly all in this together”.


Bostock, Bill. “A Russian Polar Researcher Has Been Charged Trying to Stab a Colleague to Death at a Remote Antarctic Base.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 24 Oct. 2018.

Hermes, J & Kooijiman, J. “The Everyday Use of Celebrities.” In A Companion to Celebrity, Wiley Blackwell, 2016.

McWhirter, Norris, editor. Guinness World Records 2017. Guinness World Records Ltd, 2017.

Stuster, Jack. “Behavioral Issues Associated with Long-Duration Space Expeditions: Review and Analysis of astronaut journals experiment 01-E104 final report.” Houston, Texas: Johnson Space Center, 2010.

“U.S. Antarctic Program.” NSF.

“U.S. Space Champs Down Safely After 14-Day Flight.” Call-Leader, Elwood, Indiana, 18 Dec. 1965, p. 1.

Weisberger, Mindy. “No Evidence Russian Engineer Stabbed Antarctica Colleague for Spoiling Book Endings.” LiveScience, Purch.

White, Frank. The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., 2014.

Worden, Al, and Francis French. Falling to Earth: an Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon. Smithsonian Books, 2012.

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