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How NASA is keeping coronavirus off the International Space Station

A mission is planned for just three weeks from now, but NASA has a plan.

Crew health is always important as on this previous ISS mission

Image source: NASA.gov
  • Before liftoff on every mission since 1971, NASA crew members spend two weeks in a "health stabilization" quarantine.
  • Other employees of the agency have been given a response framework that tells them where and how to proceed with their duties.
  • For upcoming launches, NASA is depending on Russia and SpaceX to step up to the challenge.

There are no respirators in space. As concerned as you may be at the moment about coronavirus following you into your personal quarantine, imagine getting COVID-19 in space, trapped in a vehicle far above the nearest hospital. As the next planned mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 9 gets closer, it's reasonable to wonder what can be done to protect astronauts already aboard from the potentially catastrophic arrival of the coronavirus.

As of March 17, NASA has no plans to cancel or postpone this or any other planned missions in the near future. While the situation is continually being reassessed, the agency has a number of measures in place to protect the crews involved.

Astronaut taking a picture from outside the ISS

Taking a picture outside the ISS

Image source: NASA.gov

It's comforting to know that NASA has for some time been careful about allowing germs aloft. Before every mission, dating back to the Apollo 14 launch in 1971, crew members heading for orbit must first spend two weeks in a "health stabilization" quarantine. Prior to its implementation, pre-flight illnesses were a concern and a relatively common occurrence.

Prior to entering the quarantine for the upcoming mission, NASA will be testing crew members for coronavirus infection.

One of the mission's crew is a cosmonaut from Kazakhstan (the location of the launch site). This past weekend, the nation reported its first coronavirus test and then closed its borders to outsiders.

NASA's team will be allowed entry, though the launch personnel roster is being pared down to as few people as possible. Safe travel arrangements are still being assessed. No reporters will be allowed to attend the launch, and the Russian state space corporation, Roscosmos, will take the unusual step of live-streaming the launch, as NASA usually does.

Coming home from the ISS

Soyuz MS-08 landss near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan in 2018

Image source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In the middle of April, a return for some ISS crew members is on the calendar. Expected to land aboard a Soyuz capsule are presumably virus-free Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir from the U.S, and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. The capsule will come down in the Kazhak desert, a type of landing that in normal times requires a large number of recovery personnel to retrieve returning crew. NASA has not yet announced plans to modify this cohort of rescuers.

Earth to Elon

ISS crew inside SpaceDragon capsule

ISS crew inside SpaceDragon capsule on March 9

Image source: NASA.gov

Perhaps the most worrying upcoming mission is the one planned in cooperation with SpaceX and currently scheduled for May. So far, things are proceeding as planned, though SpaceX founder Elon Musk last week sent an alarming email to employees. In it he downplayed the seriousness of coronavirus, arguing that more people die in car crashes. His commentary raises concerns regarding whether or not SpaceX can be relied on to proceed with the requisite level of caution.

The mission is an important one. It's a key step in NASA's Commercial Crew Program, marking the first time a privately-funded vehicle would be transporting people to and from the ISS. SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule has already paid one visit to the space station, successfully docking on March 9 as shown in the photo above.

Resume countdown

NASA Response Framework

Image source: NASA.gov

As far as NASA's Earth-bound employees go, the agency has a four-stage classification system for how and where to work. The coronavirus response framework (above) covers Central Access, Health & Safety, Meetings & Events, and Travel.

So as of now, NASA's plans for the next three missions remain on-track, with modifications made where possible in response to COVID-19 challenges. Of course, things are changing almost daily, and NASA has made it clear that they plan to continually re-assess their mission plans as events warrant.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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