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How to Ward Off Cabin Fever, According to a Former NASA Astronaut

Colonel Terry Virts is a former NASA astronaut who commanded the International Space Station. He knows a few things about being cooped up and staying calm in stressful situations.

The coronavirus pandemic and the call for social distancing mean that all of us are going to be spending a lot more time cooped up at home. This is a good, necessary measure. It’s also something that could drive an average person more than a bit stir crazy. 

Colonel Terry Virts knows how to handle feeling cooped up.  An Air Force Colonel turned NASA astronaut, Colonel Virts flew on four space missions — STS-130, Expedition 42, Expedition 43, Soyuz TMA-15M — and commanded the International Space Station. He’s logged more than 5,000 hours in 40 aircraft and spent a total of 213 days, 10 hours, and 48 minutes in space, much of it in confined space. In 2019, Colonel Virts recently set the world circumnavigation speed record, flying around the globe in less than 47 hours

Colonel Virts is also a speaker, filmmaker (he shot the IMAX movie A Beautiful Planet while on the International Space Station), photographer (his book, View from Above, features his breathtaking celestial photography) and father. He also happens to be an extremely qualified and decorated individual who knows a thing or two about staying calm under pressure. 

Fatherly spoke to Colonel Virts about staying active when cooped up, telling doctor jokes to relieve tension during lift off, and why we’d all do well by thinking about “maintaining aircraft control”. 

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People are social distancing and locking themselves down at home. When you were cooped up at the International Space Station, what did you do to keep yourself mentality strong and in good shape?

The key to spaceflights or any expeditions is to stay busy. You never want your ship’s crew sitting around twiddling your thumbs. For me, the work day was roughly 12 hours. Mission control filled my day with maintenance and experiments and exercise and interviews or whatever. Every day was different — space walks, rendezvous, whatever it was.

Then, when I was done with that, I kept myself busy with projects. Some guys will sit around and watch TV or whatever. I never did. I made the IMAX movie Beautiful Planet. That was a personal project. NASA didn’t give me any time in my schedule for that, so I basically made that in my free time.

I was also taking pictures every day, and editing them, and putting them on social media. I did a lot of photography. My first book, View from Above, was made in my spare time when I was in space. 

That’s interesting. I know how tempting it is for people — especially while they’re under so much stress — to give themselves permission to kick back. You’re saying that might potentially create some problems?

Absolutely. Just stay busy and get work done that you haven’t done. If you want to write that novel, write that novel. Right now, if you haven’t read books for a while, read your books. If you haven’t cleaned your place, clean your place. Hang out with your kids. Teach your kids. Play with your kids. I need to go through my daughter’s photo albums for her graduation that’s coming up. There’s always plenty I can do.

I distinctly remember one of your photos. It’s a picture of you doing the Spock “Live long and prosper” Vulcan salute from space after Leonard Nimoy died.

That’s right. I’m going to start doing that gesture more. It’s almost the perfect gesture for our socially distant times. 

I think that’s perfect. What’s something from your Air Force training that helps you in stressful times? 

There’s a rule of thumb they teach you as an air force pilot. I learned it when I was 21 years old and flying jets for the first time: Maintain aircraft control. Analyze the situation. Take appropriate action. 

Maintain aircraft control. This means to just keep on flying the plane. If a little warning light goes off in the corner and you start staring at it and you get the checklist out and no one is flying the airplane, it’ll crash. So, the first thing you have to do is maintain aircraft control. The second thing is to analyze the situation. Now that you’re flying the airplane and you’re safe, you look around to figure out what’s going on.

This is just great advice for any situation.

It’s a great way to handle emergencies on jets and in life in general. I do a lot of business consulting. And it’s something I frequently tell businesses. In that context, maintain aircraft control means making sure you’re not going to go out of business, making sure the employees are safe, making sure the machinery is shut down.

At home in this situation, I look at it this way:  Is everybody home? Do we have food for a few days? Is everyone okay? Okay, we’re good. Now, let’s look at the bigger picture and see what’s happening at work and when you’re going to graduate, how are we going to remain calm.

Once you’re calm and everyone is safe, then you can start making changes and deciding.

It’s weirdly helpful to have phrases like “Maintain Aircraft Control” to use as mantras during times like this. Are there any others you particularly like?

“Don’t panic.” The old Douglas Adams quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti on Expedition 42 was a big science fiction nerd and she loved that book, so that was our motto. It’s just a good motto in general. You can’t do anything well when you’re panicking.

One of the things I’ve learned in life is that things are rarely as bad as you think they are. They’re also rarely as good as you think they are. Still, most things work themselves out. I have this picture at the end of my talks, and it’s the Earth and the sun shot from space. I always say, ‘Look, this has been here for a billion years. This is going to be here for a billion more. Things are going to be okay.’

That’s a very big thought and maybe not one that kids can get there arms around. Are there ways to help others manage stress in the moment?? 

Before launching on the space shuttle, we printed out a bunch of doctor jokes. On the shuttle, the doctors were listening into our intercom. They could hear us, but they couldn’t talk to us. So, we were just telling doctor jokes the whole time and they had to sit there and listen. That was my method of dealing with that pretty stressful thing. 

When it was time to launch, we had to obviously stop making jokes and focus on the task at hand. But for me I do try to make as many jokes as possible. Balancing the preparedness with humor.

You’re a father. This is a parenting conundrum for a lot of people. Your kids are older. But how have you been discussing this with them?

I don’t want to minimize it and make it seem like it’s not a big deal. That’s wrong. But I also don’t want to make it seem like we’re all going to die.

Have you had the COViD-19 discussions with the grandparents?

Oh yeah. 

How did they go?

The conversation does depend on what news channel they have on. Some of them have Fox News on, so they’re in the it’s-not-that-big-a-deal mode. That’s dangerous. And unfortunately, a lot of elderly people get their news from sources saying it’s not that big of a deal or some sort of Democrat hoax.  

What advice would you give to parents of younger kids?

Reassure kids that this will all be okay. This will not be forever. And just sit there and play. Get out board games. Turn the iPhone off and draw a picture. 

It’s also good to understand that you may never again have this opportunity. You might never again have weeks at home with your kids. In fact, you probably won’t. This is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for parents to spend weeks with their kids. Take advantage of it. And don’t panic.