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Astronauts, scientists to share personal stories about loneliness, isolation

Michelle Rogers, USA TODAY Network
Published 5:32 p.m. MT Oct. 13, 2020

Astronauts have great stories. So do scientists. 

And three former astronauts and two scientists will join USA TODAY’s Storytellers Project to tell true, first-person stories about fighting loneliness and creating connection — even from space — on Oct. 21. 

When Emmanuel Urquieta, a self-described space geek, was working as a researcher, he had no way of knowing his job was preparing him for the pandemic. Urquieta is a mission specialist and was a test subject in a simulated mission to Mars in 2016. 

“I encountered myself in a similar scenario and I evolved and learned how to cope with situations like these,” said Urquieta, deputy chief scientist at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, a NASA partner organization based in Houston..

Urquieta will talk about his personal journey on the show, including how the isolation made him a better friend, dad and husband. 

“I want to share my experience and recommendations to folks that might feel isolated and confined these days,” Urquieta said.

The show will stream live at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on the Storytellers’ Facebook page, YouTube channel and website, where people can register in advance to watch.

During the show, Urquieta, 35, of Sugar Land, Texas, will be joined by:

  • Astronaut David Carl Hilmers, 70, of Houston, Texas. 
  • Astronaut Nicole Stott, 57, of St. Petersburg, Florida.
  • Astronaut Cady Coleman, 59, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.

And Dorit Donoviel, director of Translational Research Institute for Space Health, will participate in a Q&A with emcee Megan Finnerty, founder and director of the Storytellers Project, part of the USA TODAY Network.

“These stories are like none we’ve ever featured before,” Finnerty said. “They involve extremes of emotions, physical conditions and consequences, and in that way, they are classic adventure stories. But they also involve everyday moments of self awareness and deep feelings that we can all relate to.”

Stott will talk about her 15-year journey preparing for two missions that eventually led to her being in her in space for 104 days. Along with family photographs, her son’s stuffed animal and a book, she brought with her a watercolor painting kit to feel connected to home.

Four years ago, she and artist Ian Cion co-founded the Space for Art Foundation, a space-themed art and healing program for children.

“In 2015, I started thinking about retirement from NASA and my next mission in life,” Stott said. “I knew that whatever that next mission was that it would need to be just as meaningful as my time spent with NASA. I kept coming back to painting in space and the connection I felt to that experience and how I might use it to share the spaceflight experience with others.”

Coleman, a former astronaut who was part of two space shuttle missions and spent six months aboard the International Space Station, considers her time in space a privilege and wants to share a personal story about perseverance. 

“I’d like to think that sharing both our struggles and our creative solutions will encourage others to persevere in their own important missions,” Coleman said.

Hilmers has been on four space missions and is now a physician working on the frontlines of the pandemic in Housten. He also will talk about how he coped with feelings of isolation and loneliness in space, and the comfort he found in the stars.

“Even when I felt isolated from humanity floating hundreds of miles above the Earth, the stars brought a constancy that gave me comfort,” he said.

“For me, they represent the love of God, the love of family and close friends, and the promise for a better tomorrow.”

By sharing his personal journey, Hilmers wants to offer hope, insight and relevant advice for today.

“Find your own unshakeable rock — your own stars — whatever they may be,” he said.

“Hold them close and never let them go. And try to be a rock for others. You can find your own strength in your service to them.” 

READ: Astronauts share 5 ways of coping with anxiety, loneliness

This storytelling night is part of a series of live, virtual shows planned through 2021 featuring a diverse makeup of storytellers sharing true stories based on their personal lives. Tellers are coached by journalists from across the USA TODAY Network. Learn more at https://www.storytellersproject.com/about/

Need to know

Upcoming shows

  • Oct. 29: I Am An American
  • Nov. 10: Veterans
  • Nov. 19: Food and Family
  • Dec. 15: Holidays
  • Jan. 5: New Beginnings
  • Jan. 12: I am Black
  • Feb. 16: Love and Heartbreak
  • March 2: I am Indigenous
  • March 16: I Made This: Stories About the Arts

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