In a Russian research facility, six men are closed into spacecraft-like quarters for 105 days to see how a crew might fare on a trip to the Red Planet. And that's the short trial run.
You don't have to travel all the way to Mars to get a sense of what it would be like to make that long, long trek. That's the premise of the Mars500 project, which this year is undertaking two studies of how a human crew would hold up in the close quarters of a flight from Earth to the Red Planet and back again.
The Mars500 project is a collaboration of the European Space Agency and Russia's Institute for Biomechanical Problems, with this year's practice sojourns taking place at an IBMP facility in Moscow. The first one, a relatively short 105-day trial run, got under way March 31. The second, which is set to begin late in 2009, will last the full 520 days of a mission to Mars.
In both simulations, the six-man crews will be closed into a spacecraft-sized structure and will be as isolated from the rest of humanity as if they were actually en route to Mars. For instance, they'll eat from the same menu as astronauts on the International Space Station, or ISS. They'll have direct contact only with each other, and will have voice contact with a control center, along with family and friends--but with a 20-minute delay each way built into those communications.
One of the ways the Mars500 participants will pass the time is by tending to the plants in the facility's greenhouse. Standing here with the onion crop is Cyrille Fournier, a 40-year-old airline pilot from France. Also among the home-grown plants are strawberries, tomatoes, and radishes.
Oliver Knickel, a 28-year-old whose day job is mechanical engineer in the German army, makes a phone call from inside the isolation facility. The other four Mars500 crew members are all Russians: Serguei Ryazansky, Oleg Artemev, Alexei Baranov, and Alexei Shpakov.
Wood paneling in space? We're guessing this won't be the actual decor in the Mars-bound spacecraft. But quarters will certainly be tight. The metal tanks for the current project were planned to provide only about 200 square meters of space.
In ESA's public journal for the Mars500 project, Knickel wrote on April 7: "We all slept very well during our first nights, not waking up for anything, although in the crew quarters you can actually hear all sounds from anywhere in the module, even if the doors are closed. I realised that in order to fit in the bed I have to open the door of the wardrobe behind my bed since both the bed and me are exactly 1.85 m long. But while sleeping you need a little more space than your usual body height because of the feet not being in a 90 degree angle to the legs, as when standing, so I would need 1.95 m, which is only possible if I open the wardrobe behind the bed and sleep with my head between my books and folders."
A central purpose of the project is to get data on the psychological and physiological effects of the prolonged confinement--stress levels, sleep quality, diet, and so on. This picture shows some of the monitoring gear being tried out before the 105-day sojourn began...
...while this picture shows Knickel, inside the Mars500 facility, all fitted out for the "Pilot" experiment. Writes Fournier: "During this experiment, we have to conduct specific tasks (such as voice-guiding a target to a specific place, docking on the ISS) during which our heart rate, respiratory rhythm, eye movements, blood pressure, and brain activities are measured and recorded for further analyses."
In this experiment, Fournier analyzes the hydrogen content in his breath after eating a specific diet.
For keeping up muscle tone, Knickel wrote: "Cyrille and I are both using a device that stimulates the muscles by sending electricity through them with a regular frequency. This is new for us and quite a funny feeling, especially since we are wearing our devices for three hours in a row."
Life in a tiny pseudo space capsule might not be all that much worse than survival training in a Russian winter. Still, the trainees seem to have been enjoying this excursion near Russia's Star City research and training facility.
Russian participant Oleg Artemyev, an engineer and aspiring cosmonaut, shows off what must surely be the tamest collection of pin-ups imaginable. The array in the crew module's "hall of fame" includes Charles de Gaulle, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin.