Picture the scene: you've been on a space station for months, while back home your planet has been gripped by a horrendous viral pandemic. Millions are infected and the death toll is rising by thousands each day. Today is the day you must return home and face a very different place to the one you left behind.
It might sound like the stuff of science-fiction, but this is the reality facing a crew of astronauts and who returned to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) today.
Cosmonaut Oleg Skrypochka, and US astronauts Jessica Meir, and Andrew Morgan made a successful parachute-assisted landing on Earth at 05:16 UTC on Friday, April 17, touching down in a remote area near the town of Dzhezkazgan in rural Kazakhstan, NASA announced.
Skrypochka and Meir have been on the ISS since September 2019, while Morgan has been there since July 2019; almost seven and nine months, respectively. Of course, a lot has happened in that time. On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic. The viral disease has since infected over 2 million worldwide and killed over 145,590 people.
"It's quite surreal to see it unfolding on Earth below," Meir said at a news conference on April 10. “We can tell you the Earth looks just as stunning from up here, so it’s difficult to believe all the changes that have taken place.”
"We can watch news up here, and we've been talking to friends and families to try to paint a picture," added Morgan. "But from up here, it's hard to understand what has transpired and how life will be different when we return."
As for their feelings about returning home, the crew is excited, although they're very aware they won't return to normality for some time.
“I think I will actually feel more isolated on Earth than I did up here, just because we're so busy with amazing pursuits and tasks that we don't feel the isolation,” said Meir. “But It will be wonderful, of course, to see some family and friends – at least virtually for now."
"We can try to find the silver linings and positive elements," she added. "One of those things my family and friends are talking about is connections they've been able to foster with loved ones. It's bringing that innate human element out, reminding us of our priorities."
The Covid-19 pandemic has also meant the typical landing protocols have been forced to change. Video footage of the crews’ landing in Kazakhstan shows a rescue team arriving at the capsule wearing protective face masks. TASS, the Russian state news agency, reports that all personnel working with the crew on landing have also been tested for Covid-19.
A replacement crew, including NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts, arrived on the ISS on April 9 after spending a month and a half in quarantine before the launch to ensure they didn't bring the infection to the space station.
"We knew we would be in quarantine, but we didn't know the rest of the world would join us," said Cassidy, who has been on two spaceflight missions before this current one.
"Leaving that behind, my heart goes out to everyone," he added.
"This mission feels different."