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Lessons from the Pod: Flourishing in Space

By Marisa Zalabak

Published October 9, 2020

Standing in the shower, somewhere around my 5th week in isolation, I had an epiphany. I began to imagine what it would be like in my capsule (my pod) for months on end. I had reached that place, feeling up against the realities of isolation and knew at that moment that I needed to reframe to make it through beyond just surviving. It’s well known that reframing a challenging situation is an effective strategy for adaptation and innovation.

So-- I thought, what’s my reframe? And suddenly it came to me--“Oh! I know!... this is what it would be like if I was an astronaut and had signed up to be out in space for months!” I mean that’s what astronauts do, right? What was I going to need to get me through this journey into space for an unknown period of time? I’d have to find ways to remind myself constantly--- that being in this “pod” protects me and that I can enjoy and relish the safety of my spacecraft. 

There’s a reason a pod came to mind. I moved to this apartment not that long ago and it’s a place that would be referred to, by trend-inclined folk, as a “tiny house.” A mini studio in the heart of the formerly teaming and exciting East Village in New York City. 

As a very social person, and someone who spends most of their time traveling and running around, the apartment had seemed like a great idea after my daughter moved to college. It was a place to rest and reorganize for someone with a packed, interactive lifestyle. 

But, after weeks in my tiny house on my own, it was feeling quite different, a bit less charming and a little more “cell-block H”-ish. This was exacerbated by the location being in a COVID epicenter. This meant an increasing awareness of the severity of the situation with a continual stream of sirens on the way to nearby hospitals. This alternated with a stunning silence in a city that (formerly) never slept.  

Knowing of so many vulnerable people weathering this storm and of frontline workers bravely serving, I had been growing increasingly grateful each day for the most basic gifts (e.g. health, home, food, clean water) and now I was grateful for the gift of my safe pod. 

Gratitude has always been at the top of my survival strategies during challenging times in life and now I felt as though gratitude had become the foundation of the spaceship. The beginning and end of every day.

Once it became clear this mission in space was going to be a longer trip than planned, I started to think about what else I needed for my time in space, and a spacesuit came to mind. 

According to NASA, a spacesuit is part of the space station, each astronaut’s “one-person spacecraft” consisting of several pieces: 

  • Helmet and Extravehicular Visor Assembly: protects the head and neck while allowing the astronaut to see as much as possible. 

  • Hard Upper Torso: covers the chest and middle

  • Arm Assembly: covers the arms and connects the gloves

  • Lower Torso Assembly: covers the legs and connects to the feet

  • Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment: flexible layers worn inside the suit handling oxygen and “space dust,” (that’s kind of like wearing a fitted waterbed) 

  • Primary Life Support Subsystem: a backpack that carries oxygen for spacewalks, a system for removing excess carbon dioxide, and electricity for the suit systems

  • And…

  • Simplified Aid for Extravehicular Activity Rescue (or SAFER): a thruster jet to fly back in case one becomes separated

I made a checklist of the spacesuit I would need for this journey. For example: it was easy to draw simple comparisons of PPE to the Helmet (mask) and Arm Assembly (gloves). Then I started thinking of the other elements metaphorically: The Upper Torso (thinking of how I was going to exercise my physical heart as well as my emotions), Lower Torso (anchors to stay grounded), Ventilation Garment (safely getting enough fresh air), Primary Life Subsystem (food, water, and supplies), and my SAFER (how I was going to get around and back to the ship).

I started the list on my dry-erase board (yes, I even have a dry-erase board on hand in my pod). I brainstormed:

  • The Extravehicular Visor was assigned to the brain, learning something new each day. 

  • Upper Torso got handled by finding strenuous enough workouts I could do in a small space and doing regular check-ins of my feelings, connecting people every day, singing, dancing, making art and, most importantly, going through all of the things I am grateful for.

  • Lower Torso went to meditation, yoga, and writing.

  • Ventilation Garment, discovering the best times and places I could be outside, which sometimes is my little fire escape.

  • Last were, the Primary Life Subsystem, discovering which stores were staying the sanest and scheduling in my shopping trips every two weeks, and my SAFER, the bicycle-sharing system that I use to get go grocery shopping and take early am rides to visit trees and flowers blooming.

It evolved into my daily checklist, where I mark each item I’ve completed throughout the day. It hasn’t mattered if that meant they were done perfectly, but taken as my daily practices, part of my job living in space. 

Many of these are the practices that I have acquired over the past few decades, but so often were things I hadn’t had enough time to fit into my crazy-busy schedule every day. In order to do that, I needed to let go of the old way of operating and accept where I was, suddenly thrust into space. 

Although there’s no question that this space trip still has challenges day-to-day, --- and that we’re still out in space for a bit--- but I am hoping that my checklist is one thing that will remain in re-entry. 

What is your epiphany?