If there’s one person who knows about being shut up in a confined space with barely any human contact for a long period, it’s Frank De Winne.
Brigadier General Frank, Viscount De Winne (to give him his full title) was Belgium’s second person in space, after Dirk Frimout, and spent six months on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2009, commanding the second part of the mission. Prior to that, like any astronaut, he spent two weeks in full quarantine, to ensure he wasn’t going to transport any human diseases into space.
Then he was prepared at the cosmodrome at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, where they practised social distancing avant la lettre – hand sanitiser all over, meetings in large rooms, 1.5m minimum space between people.
Once on board the ISS, it’s difficult to keep a distance from fellow crew members, he told the VRT. The vessel is about the size of a passenger aircraft, which when shared with the rest of the crew makes it roughly equivalent to a family sharing the average home.
So he is the perfect person to give advice in these times when most of us are confined to quarters.
“It’s important to bring structure into the daily routine,” he said. “Your ordinary routine is gone, and something else has to come in its place. That’s especially important for children.”
Talking and communicating with others is important.
“As commander it was my responsibility to create a good atmosphere. If something goes wrong, you need to discuss it right away.”
Thirdly, it’s important to be aware of your own effect on others.
“You have to adapt your behaviour to try to make sure you’re annoying others as little as possible. Some small habits we have that we find normal can be enormously irritating for others. We all had to undergo a training course in Human Performance and Behaviour.”
Lastly, try to maintain contact with the outside world as far as possible – and it’s made easier now than it was then thanks to the multitude of electronic means at our disposal.
De Winne now lives in Cologne, where he is a trainer at the European Space Agency (ESA). His mother is in a rest home in Belgium, where visits are not currently permitted.
“We’re people who like to be in physical contact, who enjoy being close to one another” he said. “So we try to Skype more often than usual. But it’s not the same. It’s pretty difficult.”