When business travel is out of this world

Though it might look like a vacation from down here on earth, space travel is a form of business travel. AirPlus took a look at how astronauts from the European Space Agency have dealt with the coronavirus crisis and what the rest of us can learn from their experience in isolation.

2020: the year of the quarantine

It’s been a shock for most of us. From our remote work setups in living rooms around the globe, we’ve often caught ourselves peering out the window at a brave new world we hardly recognize. Fewer cars on the road, fewer planes in the sky, and masked figures shuffling by outside. They pass each other at a distance, like an awkward low-gravity maneuver in space suits. Astronauts, in fact, may be just the ones to show us how it’s done.


Isolation is in the job description

Video chats, remote phone conferences, and a workday in complete isolation. Many of us can now relate to this working model. And for most of us it’s a challenge, in some way or another. But for astronauts, it’s in the job description, and the only major difference the coronavirus pandemic has posed has been that they’re not 400,000 kilometers from home.

Since the pandemic struck, most business travel has ground to a halt. Even most astronauts have been grounded. (One notable exception came on May 30, 2020 when NASA launched its SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station. Find out more about the summer’s most epic business trip here.)


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NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission launches from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020.[i]


Despite the astronomical proportions, space travel is business travel, so astronauts have shared the fate of business travelers worldwide. But the rest of us could learn a thing or two from them: the trained space travelers have taken the disadvantages of the coronavirus crisis in stride, as strict quarantine measures and a life in isolation are hardly new experiences for them.


Business as usual

The spread of infection is a constant concern in the space travel industry, and protocols are always in place to prevent it. Before, during and after each of their ventures into space, astronauts undergo thorough antiviral and -bacterial procedures and quarantine periods to prevent any germs from either going up into space or being brought back down. The strange and seemingly elaborate methods of decontamination we earthlings have adopted to maintain our daily business in the face of the pandemic are hardly unusual for astronauts, for whom containment and prevention have always been business as usual.


Mission: impossible

The looming threat of Covid-19 has forced even astronauts to work under unfamiliar conditions. Earlier this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) canceled its planned space flights and associated missions, and sent its staff home to work remotely wherever possible. For those whose responsibilities require working on site, staggered shifts were introduced, along with safe distance standards and regular disinfection. All too familiar terminology for most our readers.

And what about astronauts? The idea of an astronaut working from home sounds a bit more unusual than what most of us have experienced. What does remote work look like for someone who usually spends their workday sitting in a capsule, walking in space, or specifically preparing for it? The answer is technology.


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A peek into an astronaut’s office space.[ii]


A space odyssey from home

Virtual reality and 3D simulation have brought the conditions of space to the living rooms of ESA’s astronauts. Though grounded for the foreseeable future, it’s critical that the astronauts maintain rigorous training of their technical knowledge and motor skills, or else they’ll be lost. ESA built a new robot simulator console for its astronauts specifically for these extraordinary times.

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer reported on using the console to prepare for his upcoming missions. He has as little contact with the trainer as possible and wears protective mask and gloves at all times. Maurer has been using the simulator to take virtual space walks and carry out 3D repairs on the space probe. It has enabled him to train and improve both his technical knowledge and motor skills at a time they would normally be at risk of neglect.


American innovation

NASA’s remote working solution has been even more elaborate than on the other side of the Atlantic. NASA headquarters in Washington, DC used the emergency as an opportunity to get creative, quickly converting a batch of high-performance gaming computers for staff to use at home. The computers are capable of depicting the surface of Mars with state-of-the-art realism, which has come in handy for employees working on the mission involving Martian rover “Curiosity.” From the comfort of their living rooms, staff have been able to practice controlling and planning the rover’s movements with intricate detail. They’ve been able to keep in constant contact with each other over a barrage of chat and video conference platforms to truly recreate the office experience at home.


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NASA employees have been outfitted at home with computers capable of rendering the surface of Mars with great detail.[iii]


Champions of business travel

We could all learn a thing or two from the space voyagers among us. Their response to the pandemic has been inspiring, demonstrating the in-built training in stress resilience and composure under pressure that ESA and NASA have developed over decades. Their examples show the rest of us that a challenge is an invitation to find a solution, and that even these unusual and difficult times are full of opportunity for discovery and innovation.

Like all business travelers, astronauts are counting down the days till their next business trip. And you know they’ll be prepared: even back in 1969, second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin filed an expense report for the Apollo 11 mission.[iv] Business travel payment has come a long way since then, so if you’re only half as prepared for your next business trip as Buzz was, you’ll be doing just fine!

Happy travels.


[i] nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-astronauts-launch-from-america-in-historic-test-flight-of-spacex-crew-dragon

[ii] Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash

[iii] Photo by Pixibay on Pexels

[iv] twitter.com/TheRealBuzz/status/758126112287383552

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