Today four Russians, a German and a Frenchman walked into a mocked-up spacecraft and swung the metal hatch shut behind them. If all goes as planned, that hatch won’t open again for 105 days. The six men have volunteered to spend more than three months in isolation to simulate the experience of a manned flight to Mars. The crew will subsist on freeze-dried space rations and will clean themselves with wet wipes; they’ll also go without smoking, alcohol, TV, and internet. Their only link to the outside world will be communications sessions with the mission control and an internal e-mail system. Communications with the mission controllers will have 20-minute delays to imitate a real flight [AP].
This project is a warm up for a much more ambitious experiment, scheduled for December, which will see another group of volunteers spending over 500 days in the same conditions. With current technology it is estimated that a return trip to Mars would take at least 18 months [Telegraph].
The current experiment won’t simulate some of the most daunting obstacles to interplanetary travel, like increased radiation exposure and the physical effects of prolonged weightlessness. Instead, it will focus on the psychological impact of isolation from the outside world and close proximity to just a few people. “Working in such conditions requires that a person be able to check himself, evaluate his condition in relation to the crew and in relation to mission control and be able to correct himself,” said Boris V. Marukov, the experiment’s director and a former crew member on the International Space Station. “He will be a psychotherapist for himself” [The New York Times].
The volunteers will oversee and participate in more than 70 experiments testing fluctuations in metabolism, sleep-wake cycles and the cardiovascular and immune systems under conditions of prolonged isolation. Another experiment will study cross-cultural compatibility in the expectation that any real Mars mission will involve an international crew [The New York Times]. They’ll also deal with simulated emergencies from time to time. Half way through the mission, the crew will swap their quarters for an even less commodious lifestyle aboard a landing module simulator as they pretend to orbit Mars [Telegraph].
In an attempt to ensure civility, the experiment’s organizers decided to select an all-male crew from the 5,600 applicants. One organizer noted that they had turned down a highly-qualified female cosmonaut who volunteered for the mission. “There was a suitable woman,” he said. “But we did not want to jeopardise the experiment with tension between the sexes. This might have happened with five men and one woman” [Daily Mail]. A previous isolation experiment ran into trouble when a Russian volunteer tried to kiss his female Canadian colleague at a party, resulting in accusations of sexual harassment.
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