Mars 500: The simulation ends

Mars 500 mission
The Mars 500 facility, in a parking lot….Credit: ESA, Wikimedia Commons

It was, as so many jokingly put it, a real down-to-earth mission to Mars. As in, the mission never left Earth. Beginning June 3, 2010 and ending November 4, 2011, the Mars 500 mission took place in a facility at the Russian Academy of Science Institute of Biomedical Problems near Moscow, as a joint project of the European and Russian space agencies. Joking is easy but try looking at it this way: How would you like to step into a windowless room about as big as a studio apartment (12×66 ft or 3.6×20 m) and spend the next 520 days (18 months) with five other people, in this case all men, who until this experiment you’ve never met in your life?

Actually I’m not sure why this story was often treated by the media as something of a joke. Other than the obvious and unavoidable fiction of space travel while remaining on the ground, this was a serious experiment that cost over $15 million. The specially constructed facility, which included a simulated Mars Lander and an ‘external area’ that simulated the surface of Mars, was designed to maintain the isolation and confinement that would actually occur on a 500 day mission. The program included over 100 experiments, some requiring the use of spacesuits and there were many simulated ‘events’ that would typically be encountered by a real space flight. The six cosmonauts maintained communications with Earth, including with their families, but a transmission lag of up to 25 minutes was created, just as it would be on the 54 million kilometer flight.

It was not easy. In fact, all of the other attempts at doing something like this, including the expensive and widely hyped Biosphere II in Arizona (USA) were failures. Whether a mission to Mars was faked or you just put six people into a small space for a long time, the experience is grueling and potentially violent. It is already known that jealousy over workload and contact with loved ones was a problem among this crew.

It will be interesting to read what was learned from the experiment. We know that part of conquering the vast distances involved with interplanetary travel is overcoming boredom and the inevitable stresses of living in close quarters. Much has been learned from the navies of the world, especially those on submarine duty, but the situation in space – and especially the very long duration of travel in an unrelenting and extremely hostile environment – is different. How different, we have yet to learn. This experiment was part of the process of learning, for example, fatigue and lack of motivation were part of the difficulties encountered.

It is not accidental that the Russians spearheaded Mars 500. Almost from the beginning of the so-called ‘space race’ with the United States back in the 1950’s, the Russians placed greater emphasis on the human aspects than their counterparts at the U.S. space agency, NASA. This included, early on, extensive experiments and observation of psychological factors and later with social and cultural factors. Outside of weightlessness (microgravity) and the dangers of radiation in space, psychological and physical problems may be the most important in these long flights.

The six men who participated, three Russian, and one each Italian, French and Chinese were paid $100,000 for the duration. They also spent over a year in preparation. When they stepped out of the facility modules on November 4, they were pale but healthy. Officially, they said they were ready to go on the next mission. The next mission may well be even more ambitious – a similar experiment aboard the International Space Station, where microgravity is real.

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