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When Moscow stands in for Mars

We're still decades away from a manned mission to the Red Planet, but researchers in Russia want to make sure we're ready for the claustrophobic voyage.

Jon Skillings Director of copy editing
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is director of copy editing at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing tech publications back when the web was just getting under way. He writes occasionally, on topics from GPS to James Bond.
Expertise language, grammar, usage Credentials
  • 30 years experience at tech and consumer publications, print and online. Five years in the US Army as a translator (German and Polish).
Jon Skillings
5 min read
Mars500 EEG
Mars500 participants Romain Charles, Yue Wan, Diego Urbina, and Aleksandr Smoleevskiy prepare an electroencephalogram (EEG) recording as part of their medical record-keeping. ESA

A little over a year ago, six men emerged from an isolation facility at Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems, apparently none the worse for their 105 days locked together in close quarters.

In fact, they were relentlessly chirpy throughout the three-and-a-half-month sequestration, in spite of square footage that was probably less than that of your first apartment out of college, where you probably had fewer roommates. And many more windows.

But that was just the warm-up act. In early June, another sextet of 20- and 30-something males ducked their heads through soon-to-be-sealed hatches in the Moscow facility for the main attraction in the Mars500 project: a simulation exercise of a full-length trip to Mars and back that will last 520 days, or about 17 months. Alexey, Diego, Romain, and the three others will next see the natural light of day on November 6, 2011.

(To date, by the way, the longest continuous stay in space is 437 days, from January 1994 to March 1995, a record held by cosmonaut and longtime Mir space station occupant Valeri Polyakov.)

Coincidentally, November 2011 is when NASA will be launching its next rover to Mars, a car-sized and nuclear-powered robotic vehicle called Curiosity. Its mission, expected to last roughly two Earth years, is to dig deeper and drive further than earlier rovers in pursuit of clues about whether the Red Planet was ever capable of supporting life.

Meanwhile, NASA is gearing up for eventual manned missions to Mars (and back to the moon) not in a series of closed tubes, but in the wide-open spaces of the Canadian Arctic, at a "Mars analog" location called Haughton Crater. "No place on Earth is truly like Mars," cautions the About page of the Haughton-Mars Project, run by the nonprofit Mars Institute. But it may be as close as we can get--plus, the travel costs certainly aren't nearly as daunting, you're not likely to be away from home for a year and a half, and you can practice traipsing over big rocks in a spacesuit.

"The rocky polar desert setting, geologic features, and biological attributes of the site offer unique insights into the possible evolution of Mars--in particular the history of water and of past climates on Mars--the effects of impacts on Earth and on other planets, and the possibilities and limits of life in extreme environments," according to the HMP site.

Mars500 living room
Ground control to Major Tom: If you're going to lock yourself in a closed space for months on end, be sure to bring plenty of movies and video games. ESA

But back to Moscow. Researchers from the IBMP and the European Space Agency will be keeping close tabs on the psychological and medical state of the Mars500 participants, who'll be carrying out scientific experiments, exercising daily, and maintaining the facility in the manner of astronauts at the International Space Station. Their food and drink are limited to what's already packed away in their storeroom, aside from the small selection of fruit and vegetables they're growing. Their communications with "Earth" will be limited, and subject to lag times on the order of 20 minutes each way.

And the diary entries will accentuate the positive.

"In Romain's free time," wrote participant Diego Urcola about four weeks into the lockdown, "he has been reading some books (he was so happy when he found out there were Isaac Asimov's books on board!) and playing games (he is the best guitar player in the Guitar Hero band)."

And this, from Romain Charles three weeks later, in describing the daily rise-and-shine routine:

"After waking up, there is a rush hour in our narrow corridor. It is really a bottleneck for our morning duties...It is a wonder that just 30 minutes after our wake-up, we are all together around the kitchen table having a healthy and cheerful breakfast with all our morning duties performed."

That's probably going to be disappointing to anyone looking for real insights coming out of the public posture of ESA and the IBMP, and certainly to anyone who grew up with pop culture analogs like MTV's "Real World" series.

Mars500: Home sweet isolation chamber (photos)

See all photos

But it's not a surprise to a close observer of space agency culture like Mary Roach, author of the new and raucously insightful book "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void." The book is especially good on NASA's research efforts over the decades, but Roach was also at the IBMP in July 2009 when the earlier group of Mars500 (the 105-day crew) emerged from isolation.

"Space agencies want to know what happens when you lock people in a box with no privacy and not enough sleep and depressing food, but they are wary of letting the rest of us know," Roach writes in the chapter "Life in a Box," and then a few pages later continues the thought. "It comes back yet again to a fear of negative publicity and diminished funding." (She also dishes some vintage dirt from an IBMP isolation exercise in 1999.)

However grueling the current Mars500 sojourn turns out to be in its own limited way--the participants, for instance, will be subject to Earth's gravity from start to finish, and don't really need to worry about running out of oxygen--and whatever knowledge it eventually imparts, it's a rather academic exercise. A manned mission to Mars is likely a good quarter-century away at the earliest.

At NASA, the broadly stated goal--voiced by President Obama earlier this year--is to get to the vicinity of the Red Planet, if not actually on it, in around 2035. "NASA is now tasked with extending human presence beyond the Earth system, into deep space," the agency's chief technologist, Bobby Braun, wrote earlier this month in an open letter to college students. "This approach includes preparing new rockets and space vehicles for flight in the early part of the next decade, human exploration of an asteroid by 2025, and sending humans to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, with Mars surface landings to follow."

Roach sums up the planetary yearning more succinctly: "We're not scheduled to land on Mars until sometime in the 2030s, but it's always at the back of the collective NASA mind."

Till then, it's the robotic rovers and the orbiters that will really teach us about life (or rocks, at least) on Mars.