Prepare for pre-flight quarantine

Prepare for pre-flight quarantine

Before being launched into space for a mission-critical mission, astronauts go in pre-flight quarantine.  They call the place where they isolate themselves their “white-collar prison”: they can’t leave the compound and most visitors have to talk to them through glass.  Is the idea behind this quarantine to fully concentrate on the mission ahead?  To some extent, yes.  But there is a more important reason: the true purpose is medical.  The idea is to protect them from catching infections on Earth that would make them sick and less productive in space.  Indeed, sickness highly influences their productivity.  

On orbit, even a head cold is a big deal. Without gravity, your sinuses don’t clear and your immune system doesn’t fight back as effectively.  So you feel much sicker, much longer and in such a small space, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the rest of the crew will be infected too.  That’s exactly what happened during the Apollo 7 mission in 1968.  Commander Wally Schirra developed a bad cold during the 11-day mission, and by the end, all three members of the crew were so ill that they refused to put their helmets on for landing. They were concerned that as pressure increased during re-entry, their eardrums might burst.  So they wanted to try to equalize the pressure the same way you would on a plane: by pinching their noses while trying to blow out— which would be impossible if they were wearing big fish-bowl helmets.

In the 1960s, astronauts frequently launched in apparently perfect health, but then, a day or so into the mission, a virus would make its presence.  Think of the crew of the Apollo 8 mission: all three astronauts experienced gastroenteritis (which is probably even less pleasant on orbit than it is on Earth…).   This was not only very uncomfortable, but it also highly effected their productivity.  

So in 1970 NASA decided to isolate astronauts pre-flight.  It became something mandatory.  And it still is today.  Emotionally and physically, quarantine is a must to make work in space productive.  But so it is on Earth.  Force yourself to walk away from your work.  Go in quarantine.  Do something else.  Or just do nothing.  It will help you to be more productive during your next ‘mission-critical mission’.  Have a great summertime, take a pre-flight quarantine and enjoy reloading your batteries during your holidays!  

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