Mars500 astronauts in Russia living as if they’re actually colonising Mars

[From The Express]


As a one-way trip to the Red Planet is mooted, we reveal how, deep in the most inhospitable places on Earth, astronauts are already living as if they were actually colonising Mars.

Saturday October 30,2010
By Jane Warren

The idea of making a new life on Mars is strangely hypnotic.

It may be famously inhospitable – there’s hardly any oxygen and if you step out unsuited your lungs will explode due to the thin atmosphere – but these drawbacks don’t seem to stop the allure of the Red Planet in the popular imagination.

And now comes news from no less an authority than Nasa that man may be living there by 2030. There’s only one problem.

If you are among the first to make the journey you’d never be able to return to Earth. The price of sending 20 Mars settlers with a one-way ticket would be equal to bringing four astronauts back. Nasa revealed this week that it has already received more than £600,000 to start work on the colonising project based at Ames Research Centre in California.

It will take a lot more than that to get the project off the ground: the distance from Mars to Earth varies between 34 million and 250 million miles, depending on the position of Mars in its orbit around the sun. That’s a long way from home. For this reason, and others, the idea of colonising other planets was until recently only the stuff of science fiction.

But in a lab at a scientific institute outside Moscow, six men are doing much more than talk about it. They are experimenting with the reality. In June these would-be “astronauts” were locked into a cylindrical spaceship simulator on a 520-day mission to, as one wag put it, boldly go absolutely nowhere at all. Their experiment will simulate the conditions of a flight to Mars (minus the zero gravity and the radiation).

“Like lots of little boys, I always wanted to be an astronaut,” said Romain Charles, a 31-year-old French engineer, shortly before boarding the craft. “I kept this dream alive when I grew up so that I would have the skills if the opportunity ever came up. To answer the question of whether man is able to go to Mars is very exciting for me.”

The scientists behind the project, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and other international partners, hope their simulation will help them to understand, Big Brother style, how well human beings would cope with such a long journey in isolation. During the experiment the crew will carry out 105 experiments to determine their psychological and physical states and to chart the effects of such prolonged isolation on their minds and bodies.

“We all know that this won’t be easy,” said Martin Zell of the European Space Agency, in June. “But it’s very important for understanding how long-distance human exploration missions into space will work.” All food rations and other supplies were loaded in the summer and nothing will go in or out of the simulator for the duration of the experiment, during which there will be no contact with anyone from the outside world, except by email.

The six volunteers – three from Russia, one each from France and China and one Italian-Colombian – will have no access to telephones, television or other luxuries, although they will play computer games designed to see how well they are coping with their close confinement. They have also been permitted to take reading materials, including dictionaries to help them communicate with each other, photographs of their families and some personal possessions.

Diego Urbina, the Italian-Colombian, hopes to read the complete works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez during the mission. Russian Sukhrob Kamolov, a former heart surgeon and one of the mission doctors, is taking a medical manual in 14 parts. Romain Charles has taken a guitar, “just to annoy the other guys,” he joked.

If they can last the full 520 days each member of the expedition will receive a fee of 3million roubles (about £66,000) for their time, although the Chinese participant, Wang Yue, the only member not to have come from the open selection programme – which attracted 6,000 applications – was rumoured to be receiving rather less, having been proposed by his government.

He planned to take special Chinese inks and paper on board to practise his calligraphy, and also planned to learn Russian. A single-sex crew was considered likely to be more harmonious – despite 20 per cent of applications coming from women – in the light of a disastrous eight-month isolation experiment in 2000 in which a female volunteer, Canadian physician Dr Judith Lapierre, was grabbed by the arm by an intoxicated male participant who tried to kiss her.

Dr Lapierre locked herself in her room and said later, “I had lost my dreams about astronauts and cosmonauts, who had always been heroes for me.” She quit after 110 days. Alcohol has been banned on the test simulations ever since that episode. BUT perhaps the greatest privation that the participants are currently experiencing, four months into their unusual mission, is the lack of sunlight. To preserve the illusion that they are really on a spaceship roaring across space, there are no windows in the simulator. What it does have, bizarrely, is wood panelling in an ingenious attempt to make the living environment more homely.

The would-be cosmonauts also have a miniature greenhouse and have been encouraged to grow radish, paprika, tomato and pea plants when their initial supplies of fresh food run out. The greenhouse also contains carnations and geranium plants. “The flowers are a psychological gimmick,” revealed Margarita Levinskikh, one of the scientists behind the experiment.

“Many astronauts said after lengthy missions to the International Space Station that plants had a favourable effect on people living in an enclosed space for a long time.” To measure this, she has installed sensors near the greenhouse so she can compare the time spent working there, with the time spent, well, just watching the flowers grow.

The “spaceship” is made up of a residential module of 150 cubic metres, a medical module of 100 cubic metres and the household module. Each “astronaut’ has a bedroom of six square metres with a bed, a desk and a small cupboard. There is also a module imitating the landing capsule and a giant sandpit to represent the Martian surface, which will be viewed by the “astronauts” for the first time halfway through the experiment – in approximately five months’ time.

The astronauts are assisted in filling their days with a fl ight plan that divides their time in the space-craft simulator into clear sections. These include the first 10 to 11 days orbiting Earth followed by the departure from Earth’s orbit, the long, straight trajectory of the flight to Mars and another spiral trajectory on the final, dangerous approach to the planet.

Halfway into the journey three of the men will be selected – the criteria for selection is currently unknown – to step outside their faux space ship into the sandpit. The lucky three will then spend the best part of a month conducting “experiments” on the fake Martian surface, with the help of a robot and specialised instruments. The experiment will conclude after a further eight months returning to earth.

Despite the participants’ differing backgrounds and their inevitable challenges with communication – only the three Russians spoke Russian at the start of the experiment – the Russian Federal Space Agency announced in July, one month after take-off, that the main goal of Mars 500 phase one had been achieved: the team had bonded. “We drew that conclusion from observing the crew members preparing for experiments, sharing meals and during their free time,” said a source at the Medical and Biological Problems Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where the experiment is being held.

“A special sign language has been agreed upon for avoiding possible misunderstandings,” says experiment director Boris Morukov. Three weeks ago the astronauts sent an emailed message of support to Chile’s trapped miners which revealed something of the emotional temperature inside the mock space pod outside Moscow.

In a diary entry that was released by the European Space Agency, Romain Charles, the natural spokesman for the group, wrote: “All our thoughts go to the 33 miners in Chile. When you are in isolation you feel closer to other people living the same experience.” He then advised them: “Stay busy, be careful with your health and keep a day/night schedule.”

For the boys currently trapped on a mission to nowhere, the real challenge is quite clearly in the mind. “We just have to keep our minds as steady as possible – for what will be a very long time,” said Diego Urbina, the other European, shortly before the hatch was sealed in June. Intriguingly, the crew’s captain, Alexei Sitev, a 38-year-old Russian, signed up even though he married his childhood sweetheart just one month before the experiment began.

“Of course it’s hard to say goodbye to your family but many travellers who discovered new lands disappeared for long periods. They all came back, their families waited for them, so I don’t see any big problems,” he said. That’s a luxury that the first real travellers to Mars simply won’t have. It will also be interesting to see how Alexei’s long-suffering wife feels in another 14 months’ time.

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