Quarantine Routine: Chris Hadfield says self-isolation is a lot like flying a spaceship

Quarantine Routine: Chris Hadfield says self-isolation is a lot like flying a spaceship

"You’re part of a crew trying to accomplish an objective”

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Who: Former astronaut Chris Hadfield
Days in isolation: 33
Quarantine team: His wife, Helene, daughter-in-law, Mizai, and four-year-old granddaughter, Eleanor
Location: A two-bedroom cottage near Sarnia, Ontario

Morning

I set an alarm for 6 a.m. and get up around sunrise. Isolation hasn’t disrupted my usual routine too much, except that we’re down at our tiny little cottage near Sarnia, which was built in the 1800s. It’s me, my wife, my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter. That’s the crew of the spaceship.

I have a dog, Albert, who needs to be walked in the morning. He’s a 13-year-old pug. Pugs aren’t geniuses. For them, whatever is happening is happening. In that way, Albert is a good model for times like these. There’s no point in getting worried about things, just do the right thing and take care of the people around you.

When we’re in Toronto, my wife and I normally take Albert to Starbucks or for a walk around High Park. Now that we’re at the cabin, we take him out on the trails. Walking the dog is a chance for us to talk and connect because we’re both busy people. My wife is a full-time student, doing a degree in fine arts and design at Sheridan College. I try to get some exercise in the morning, too. I’m not a fanatic about it: I don’t think you need to join a gym or have the latest running shoes to stay healthy. I always do 15 push-ups before I jump into the shower.

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Self-isolation = garage cleaning, with my gang.

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When my granddaughter Eleanor wakes up, our ritual is to make scrambled eggs. We draw faces on all the eggs with a Sharpie before we crack them. She’s quite good at drawing cats, so this morning we had cat eggs for breakfast. I normally have a mixture of orange juice and pomegranate juice in the morning, but I’ve stopped drinking coffee. We went to Starbucks one day and I realized it didn’t taste very good and that I’d been drinking it out of habit. Instead, I’ll have one caffeinated tea, then herbal tea for the rest of the day.

Noon

I tend to have a lot going on during the day. I’m writing a fourth book, I do interviews with media around the world, I chair a technology incubator called the Creative Destruction Lab, I do talks, I teach at the University of Waterloo and I’m the chair of the board of Open Lunar Foundation, a non-profit focused on lunar exploration. I’m currently doing all of that over video chat, since we obviously can’t have in-person meetings.

Right now, I’m also working on some technology related to Covid-19. It’s a company called Isberg with a product called Spotlight. The hope is you’ll be able to lay your fingertip on a light sensor and it will use spectroscopy to analyze your blood and tell you whether your body is reacting to the virus or not. It could play a huge part in opening up stadiums and air travel: you scan your finger, you get a green light or a red light, and that determines whether you can enter.

The way you think and organize yourself as an astronaut is very applicable to the disrupted life a lot of people are living right now. The first thing is to understand the risks. You can’t fly a spaceship while you’re worrying about things. You need accurate information. After that, you need to recognize that you’re part of a crew trying to accomplish an objective: what are the things you need to get done today? Then, most critically, you start doing them.

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My home TV studio today.

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Lunch is often catch-as-catch-can for us. On the spaceship, it was the same. I recognize that some meals are important social rituals and others are a bit like pulling into a gas station. One of us will say, “Hey, it’s lunchtime.” Then whoever has time will make some soup or a sandwich.

The cottage is on an island in the St. Clair River. My parents bought a cottage here in 1962, so my entire memory of my life has been of summering on this island. We bought our place 14 years ago. Like every cottage on the island, it’s small and humble. I’ve still got some work to do before the summer: turning on the electricity, sorting the plumbing, chopping wood, checking the drainage and getting the boat running properly. I grew up on a farm and I think there’s great pleasure in physical work. I also love seeing the change of seasons. Yesterday, we saw a bald eagle and a red-bellied woodpecker.

Evening

I really like to add some rigmarole to dinner and make it formal. We set the table, we have cloth napkins, everybody has a drink. I like a single malt scotch from Islay, something peaty. Our granddaughter initiates a toast and everyone clinks their glasses and has a little sip. Eleanor usually has iced water because she thinks ice is fun.

Last night, we did something deliberate: we went around in a circle and everyone spoke about their day. It was delightful to listen to everyone reflect. It brought everyone out of their little shell. I talked about Spotlight and my wife talked about a university project she’s doing on the influence of Russian iconography.

But the most wonderful thing is to see the world through Eleanor’s eyes. She’s just as significant a human being as anybody else around the table. Coyotes are huge in her imagination right now, because they’re on the islands around here, but she hasn’t seen one. She’s always asking me to show her coyotes on the iPad, so we looked at all types, from Wile E. Coyote to the real thing. Understanding something keeps it from being scary.

After dinner, everybody just relaxes and we have reading time with Eleanor. I’m on the board of the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, so I know how important literacy is, but more than that, reading to your granddaughter is a lot of fun. We’ve got a couple of books on rotation. Currently, it’s a Thomas the Tank Engine book, Thomas and the Shark.

Once the important stuff is done, I go to bed. That’s usually around 10 p.m. I set an alarm for the next morning, then repeat.

As told to Alex McClintock