Three astronauts will return to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) this week, after spending the entire COVID-19 pandemic in space. NASA‘s Andrew Morgan has been on the ISS for nine months, while NASA’s Jessica Meir and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka have been living on the station since September, continuing their research while watching the pandemic spread from a distance.
"It is quite surreal for us to see this whole situation unfolding on the planet below," said Meir during a video interview last week. "I think for me it'll still be nice to go back and to see some familiar places and some familiar faces," but "it will be very difficult to not be able to give hugs to my family and friends."
Skripochka is the current commander of the ISS crew, with Meir and Morgan as the first and second flight engineers, keeping the station running while working on a variety of scientific research projects. Meir also participated in the first all-female spacewalk last year. Their replacements, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, and the station's new commander Chris Cassidy, arrived last week, with Skripochka transferring command to Cassidy on Wednesday afternoon.
As longtime residents of a cramped environment with limited resources, Morgan and Meir have both shared advice to people acclimatizing to self-isolation on Earth. They're big proponents of indoor exercise and keeping a regular schedule.
It's hard to say who will have a more unusual experience under the circumstances: the team leaving the ISS this week, or their replacements who just left Earth in the middle of a crisis. Andrew Morgan was a medical officer in the U.S. Army before he became an astronaut, so he understands what healthcare workers are going through at the moment. He admitted he felt "a little bit of guilt" at being separated from the pandemic, where he might otherwise have been able to help.
Meanwhile, Chris Cassidy spoke about the strict quarantine restrictions required before sending the new team into space. Quarantine is already mandatory for missions like this, as no one wants a repeat of what happened with Apollo 13: One of the original crewmembers was exposed to measles, and had to be replaced just 48 hours before launch. "This mission, it does feel different," said Cassidy. "I will tell you, leaving Earth amidst the global crisis and the shutdown, worldwide quarantine. We knew as a crew we were going to be in quarantine ... but we didn't know the whole rest of the world was going to join us."
The three astronauts' departure will be streamed live on NASA TV, starting at 6pm ET on Thursday. The actual landing process begins at 12am on Friday, with the three astronauts performing a parachute-assisted landing in Kazakhstan a little over an hour later.