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What Someone Who’s Been To ‘Mars’ Says About Isolation


7 minute read

During the winter of 2018, I spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah as a citizen astronaut. The MDRS is an analog mission site, meaning it’s used to run experiments as if we were actually on Mars. It’s a facility for teams of scientists to dry run experiments and procedures, adding to the body of knowledge before we actually send people to Mars. 

These simulated missions try and mimic real conditions as much as possible. We were not able to leave without a “spacesuit” on, we ate freeze-dried food, followed strict protocols, and enforced a communication delay between “Mars” and Earth. As the crew engineer for the MDRS188 team, I was responsible for the operation of the facility and to support the experiments being conducted. 

But my biggest challenge was dealing with isolation. As the whole world is now finding out, isolation is a skill. 

I learned a lot about myself during those two weeks. Here are some tips that I learned while dealing with isolation:


Schedule your downtime

In small confined spaces it’s easy for work to blend in with relaxation. While it may seem that working late hours is more productive, this leads to burnout very quickly. When you are working in the same place that you relax in, it’s extremely important to schedule in your downtime. 

While in simulation, we had set time where we would drop what we were doing and commit to downtime. We scheduled movie nights, played games, did yoga; anything but work. This allowed our minds to take a break and relax. Just like a muscle, you need to allow rest time for your brain else it will get overworked. 

Scheduling downtime every day meant that we were able to start every day fresh and relaxed. 


Personal Status updates

As the COVID-19 situation unfolds, it’s important to understand how those changes are affecting you. Each person, city, and country will be affected differently. We are programmed to deal with adversity, but all too often our coping mechanism is to power through issues. 

While that can work in the short term, it’s a disastrous longterm solution. 

During the mission, we had morning briefings to go over our daily and weekly objectives. These meetings followed a normal work agenda, but we also spoke about personal issues. We talked about how we were feeling, how yesterday went, and how we wanted to adjust our work to maximize our output. 

Each person needed to understand their own status before they could properly share it with the team. 

Reflecting on your own status allows you to adjust your actions. What worked yesterday may not work today. The schedule you had in the office may not work at home. You need to experiment to find what works for you. Try 10 pushups before a meeting to replace your 10 am walk, or maybe you need to schedule a 5 pm call with your team to gossip about issues at the office. 

Baking sourdough bread may have been fun week 1, but it’s lost its luster on week 4. We are all in a stressful situation, and it’s necessary to make adjustments along the way. 

Doing honest checkups with yourself allows you to adjust your behavior to fit your needs. 

Never Stop Communicating

When we spent long periods of time alone, it can become a habit to keep to ourselves. Dynamic situations are when we need to communicate the most. You need to take extra efforts to reach out to people and maintain communication links with them. 

The MDRS is a remote facility without anyone else for miles around. There is also an imposed communication delay to mimic the distance from the Earth to Mars. It truly felt like we were all alone. Right from day one, we made sure to keep communication between the team open, honest, and frequent. It was vitally important for the success of the mission and our own mental health.

You should put extra effort into communicating with your family, friends, and coworkers more than ever in periods of stress.

Have Fun

Fun is extremely important to your mental health. In times of prolonged stress it’s more important to actively look for fun in order to calm your central nervous system. 

For long-duration space missions, the human element is the biggest variable. All the machines and hardware can be analyzed down to the millimeter, but the humans are always changing. A big research component of analog missions is testing team dynamics and maximizing performance. Having fun is a big part of being human, and leads to better performance. On our mission having fun was an explicit component that we researched. 

Remember, isolation is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to adjust the way you tackle new challenges so that you can maintain your work output. This requires you to be honest with yourself and seek guidance from others. It’s a skill like any other, and it takes practice.



For more stories, visit Todayville Calgary

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‘Boiling point’: Alberta doctors warn of health system collapse as COVID cases climb

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CALGARY — Alberta’s health-care system is on the verge of collapse, warns a group of physicians who are pleading with the government to strengthen public health measures to fend off a relentless fourth wave of COVID-19.

Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency room physician in Edmonton, said a staffing crisis, overwhelmed intensive care units and mixed messaging from the province has created a “dire” situation.

Her biggest fear, she said, is that doctors will need to triage patients should hospitalizations continue to mount.

“We don’t want to have to make these decisions where we’re choosing who gets to have (intensive) care or not. And we’re getting closer and closer to that every day,” Mithani said in an interview.

Alberta Health Services, the province’s health-care provider, said in a statement Wednesday there were 258 intensive care beds in the province, which includes 85 added spaces. It said intensive care unit capacity sat at 87 per cent — just slightly below a seven-day average of 91 per cent.

Mithani said the government needs to listen to frontline health-care workers and implement stronger public health restrictions to prevent the health system from crumbling.

“This is much, much worse than I think people understand,” she said. “We, as health-care workers, are telling you that things are very dire, that ICU beds are running out, that we are stretched very thin in terms of our hospital capacity.”

On Friday, the Government of Alberta reinstated an indoor mask mandate for public spaces and an alcohol sales curfew at 10 p.m. It also announced a $100 incentive for unvaccinated Albertans who get their shots in response to an intensifying crisis.

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said those efforts are “all but meaningless.”

“They are worse than doing nothing at all because now it is going to delay the government from taking more definitive action,” Schwartz said during a panel discussion Wednesday with advocacy group Protect Our Province.

Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care physician in Edmonton who was also on the panel, said the government should consider vaccine passports and a circuit-breaker lockdown, which is a tight set of restrictions for a limited amount of time to curb ongoing transmission of COVID-19.

Relying solely on vaccinations won’t reign in a growing fourth wave driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, added Mithani.

It takes at least six weeks for people to build full immunity against COVID-19 because vaccine shots need to be separated by a month and then allow another two weeks to develop protection.

In the meantime, there are no signs COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are slowing. There were 647 Albertans in hospital Wednesday due to COVID-19, with 147 of those patients in intensive care. Hospitalizations jumped by 7.5 per cent from Tuesday. Another 18 people died in a 24-hour period.

The doctors with Protect Our Province said there are risks related to government inaction. Those risks, they said, include reduced health-care access for Albertans and increased burnout among health-care professionals.

Alberta Health Services announced late Wednesday that all scheduled, elective surgeries and outpatient procedures in the Calgary Zone have been postponed for the rest of the week. It said on social media the move was necessary to deploy qualified staff to intensive and critical care units.

“The situation really has come to a boiling point,” said Schwartz.

“It’s going to be a while before the premier and the chief medical officer of health will be willing to step back and accept that these actions have failed to immediately curb transmission and by that point, we’re going to be in dire, dire trouble.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2021.

Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press

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Enbridge advances Gulf Coast strategy with US$3B Moda Midstream purchase

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CALGARY — Enbridge Inc. has signed a US$3-billion deal to purchase a U.S.-based terminal and logistics company.

The Canadian pipeline giant says it will buy Moda Midstream Operating LLC from private-equity firm EnCap Flatrock Midstream.

As part of the deal, Enbridge will acquire the Ingleside Energy Center located near Corpus Christi, Texas.

Ingleside is North America’s largest crude export terminal. It loaded 25 per cent of all U.S. Gulf Coast crude exports in 2020.

The deal also gives Enbridge access to other crude export assets in the Gulf Coast region, including the Cactus II Pipeline, the Viola Pipeline and the Taft terminal.

Enbridge says the purchase will advance its U.S. Gulf Coast export strategy. It says the deal is expected to close in the fourth quarter and will immediately add to the company’s earnings.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:ENB)

The Canadian Press

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