Mars simulation flight crew says “goodbye” to daylight

Six men locked in a container for 18 months, with cameras following their every move – this is not reality TV show, it is a science experiment to simulate a manned mission to Mars.

A Frenchman, an Italian, a Chinese and three Russians, all with higher technical education, will spend 520 days in a simulated space module in the Institute of Medical and Biological Studies.

The experiment aims to examine how those men will cope both physically and psychologically.

“We know that a Mars mission is going to be very long, likely a multinational crew, and in confined environment. Believe it or not, those simple conditions are rarely ever evaluated to determine how long humans can go,” says Dr. David F. Dinges from the University of Pennsylvania.

There will be no natural light, and for most of the “voyage” all communications will be subject to a realistic 20-minute delay.

The crew will have to breathe recycled air, can only shower once every ten days, and will have to live off pre-packed food and dietary supplements.

They are also due to carry out a simulated landing on Mars and even walk on the planet's surface.

On the psychological level researchers will be looking at stress, sleep quality, mood and interaction between the crew.

Mars-500 mission member Diego Urbina says the crew have been preparing for about 90 experiments that they will carry out during this period, so they took lessons from researchers.

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They were also getting psychological training to better cope with anticipated stress during their isolation.

Jennifer Ngo-Anh, ESA Mars-500 program manager, said one of the main problems that they will have to deal with is being away from their normal social environment: their friends and families; their regular job.

“But I think we chose a pretty good crew and they’ll do a good job,” she added.

Studies of submariners and Antarctic base workers indicate that tensions are most likely to flare after six to eight months.

These must be avoided with careful psychological management.

“In the process of answering those difficult questions that are associated with exploration, you raise new questions and we push new frontiers. And this is what makes things exciting. The crew and people in general who engage in these activities are a self-select group of people who really like to be on a frontier,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sutton from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.