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Lessons from an astronaut: how to stay resilient in isolation

In this Joule COVID-19 Learning Series webinar, host Dr. Jillian Horton speaks with Dr. Robert Thirsk, a former Canadian astronaut who spent six months living and working aboard the International Space Station ― the longest any Canadian astronaut has spent in space.

Dr. Thirsk shares his tips for managing isolation and building resilience, drawing on the many parallels between his experience and what Canadians and frontline physicians are facing with COVID-19 right now.

tweetable: “We can consider ourselves as astronauts on spaceship earth and our mission objective is to minimize the infection rate so that health care workers and patients around the world have a fighting chance against this nasty virus.”


What training did Dr. Thirsk undergo to prepare for months in space?

  • To become an astronaut, Dr. Thirsk spent years at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in mission specialist training.
  • He received advanced instruction on both Shuttle and International Space Station systems, spacewalking, robotic operations and Russian language.
  • He also learned soft skills, like self-care, teamwork, leadership and how to communicate with people from other cultures.

tweetable: “Some of these non-technical skills are just as important as the technical ones, especially for isolated and confined environments.”

What aspects of teamwork are Canadians going to have to prioritize to get through the months ahead?

After spending six months aboard the International Space Station with five international astronauts, Dr. Thirsk understands the challenges of confined group living. Here are his tips for coping with self-isolation:

  • Be flexible: Be aware of the quirks that can irritate people and be willing to change your behaviour.
  • Share the “non-heroic” tasks: Everyone on the space station wanted the challenging tasks (like spacewalking), but crew mates also needed to empty the human waste facility, clean up garbage and wipe down the walls of the capsule.
  • Communicate: When personal conflicts arise, address them right away and don’t let them fester.

tweetable: “If it’s for the sake of the crew, I’ll comb my hair the other way for six months ― that’s minor to me. What I want to do is come home, as a crew, thriving, healthy, happy and having accomplished all of our mission objectives.”

Physicians are not always great models of self-care. How could that mindset impair their ability to respond as well as possible to COVID-19?

  • Dr. Thirsk says tackling COVID-19 is not unlike completing a space station mission ― both are long-duration events with an aggressive timeline. 
  • It’s important to control your workload and ensure you have enough reserves to handle crises as they arise.
  • For him, self-care is the same whether he’s in space or on earth: eat properly, exercise and get enough sleep.

tweetable: “You’re deluding yourself if you think you’re a superhuman and can do an 18-hour shift in emergency or in the ICU with no consequences.”

Many physicians are working in a climate of fear ― fear of contracting COVID-19 themselves or infecting loved ones. Can you talk about how to cope with fear in the context of a job where there is profound personal risk?

Dr. Thirsk says astronauts must take on risk and learn to manage fear ― he lost seven friends in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. He offers two ways of coping that could be helpful for physicians:

  • Weigh the risks versus the benefits. Dr. Thirsk believes the risk of injury or death for astronauts is small compared to the opportunity to work with people at the top of their profession for the greater good.
  • Practise compartmentalization. For example, during takeoff, while sitting on the launch pad with two million pounds of explosives beneath him, Dr. Thirsk focuses on his checklist and the duties he needs to fulfill to ensure a successful ascent.

tweetable: “I get rid of all the distractions that cloud my ability to perform well and be on top of my game.”

Health professionals are part of an historic event in medicine right now. What final thoughts do you have as we undertake our mission?

Dr. Thirsk says space flight changed his perspective on the world, and made him realize several things:

  • Natural ecosystems are connected, and everyone is one.
  • What really matters is the survival of the human species.

In the case of COVID-19, he says it will be important for Canada and the world to examine their response to the virus, so they can learn lessons for the next pandemic.

tweetable: “The magnitude of this COVID-19 outbreak took us by surprise, but another one is going to come in the following decades, and we’ll be ready.”


This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.  Feel passionate about this topic? Please connect with us at