Journey into the unknown: Simulating a trip to Mars

For 520 days, six astronauts simulating a trip to Mars will endure stress, surveillance – and no windows. How they cope will shape future space travel, says David Whitehouse

In a large hall at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, six astronauts have begun the first full-duration Mars simulation mission. After a brief ceremony, the hatch of their mock-up spaceship was closed on 3 June. It will not open again for 520 days – the time it takes to get to Mars and back using conventional rocket technology.

It's not certain they will make it. They'll be subjected to the psychological stress of isolation, and forced to live and work with others. Their health, moods, performance and interactions will all be monitored, Big Brother-style. Few will be surprised if before the year is out some are hammering at the walls trying to get out.

More than 300 people applied to be crew members. Only six entered the simulator: three Russians, two Europeans, and a Chinese astronaut – all of them men. Initially, the selection criteria said that all candidates had to speak both Russian and English, but that was later relaxed. As it is, not all speak Russian and they have varying levels of English.

Living in five modules divided between areas for work and rest, the crew will first simulate a 250-day outbound flight to Mars, followed by a landing. Then, during a 30-day Mars surface stage, three of them will move to the Mars lander simulator, don space suits, and walk around in a specially designed sandpit that is standing in for the Red Planet. Finally, there is the 240-day return trip to Earth.

Of course it can only be a partial simulation, as there is no weightlessness and the crew know they have not really ventured into the vastness of interplanetary space. They are able to abandon the mission at any time – but that won't make it any less tough.

Although they are supposed to be simulating a space mission in a mock-up spaceship, one has to say it doesn't look very spaceship-like in any of the five modules. All have pine walls, pine furniture and pine bookcases, making it look more like a Swedish sauna than an interplanetary craft. As for the bedrooms, think student accommodation. Taken as a whole, it looks like a holiday cottage with no windows.

But holiday it is not – as the crew will find out once the novelty has worn off. The prepackaged food will after a while become tedious. The astronauts can take a shower every 10 days, but in between have to rely on sterilised wet-wipes to keep clean. Communications with the outside world will be mostly via email, with a 20-minute delay simulating the radio-wave travel time to Mars. One of the crew, Diego Urbina, will be twittering (twittername @diegou).

They've been in training for more than a year, with a strict fitness regime and intensive medical and psychological monitoring to determine their precise states as they start the mission. They have had innumerable lectures and demonstrations about the scientific experiments they will be carrying out, and even a two-day survival course involving camping out in a makeshift shelter in snowy woods outside Moscow.

All that will seem far away, now that the hatch has closed behind them. Inside, they have the freedom to organise their various tasks, and 'non-standard events' and emergencies will also be thrown at them at random times to see how they cope, especially in the later phases of the mission. For this first month they have had voice communication with Mission Control. After that it will be email only.

It's bound to be stressful. Although they know each other well and have been psychologically profiled not to have obvious clashes, this is no 10-day space-shuttle flight – during which a crew can put up with personal problems. If they are not careful, simmering resentment, jealousy, inappropriate competition and even mutiny could wreck the mission. Previous experience of such isolation suggests people get heartily sick of other people's stories after a few months, and soon afterwards run out of stimulating conversation. Then the tensions ramp up.

Some of the previous isolation missions have not gone well. An eight-month mission in 2000 contained something not seen in this expedition: alcohol and women crew members. There were two women – a Russian and a Canadian – among a crew of six. The Russian said afterwards that she felt it had gone OK, as any Russian woman knows how to keep their men at bay.

The Canadian was not so lucky, and was once grabbed by the arm as a prelude to an unwanted kiss. She locked herself in her room and said later, "I had lost my dreams about astronauts and cosmonauts, who had always been heroes for me." The mission descended into threats and a violent incident. One male crew member walked out. Alcohol has been banned ever since.

This time, the crew selection panel have said they did not intentionally set out to make the crew all male. They said that when they had reduced the competition to 11 candidates, they noticed that none was a women.

To fly on the space shuttle takes years of training to master the tasks that must be performed in orbit, to achieve the right level of physical fitness, to withstand the stress of launch, to know what to do in an emergency abort, and to be prepared for a life of weightlessness. On the International Space Station, astronauts stay for six-month shifts and it is known that they have problems keeping their internal clocks synchronised to their work timetable. Fatigue and lack of concentration can result. Many fundamental questions remain about how our natural cycles adapt to space. Also, in space an astronaut's immune system becomes suppressed, meaning that a low-lying, latent infection that is kept at bay on Earth can break out in space. Muscles waste in zero gravity, bones weaken and space station crew members have to spend hours each day exercising to overcome the effects of zero gravity. To help keep them going, though, they have a fascinating environment and a wonderful view outside – be it down to the Earth, or up to the stars.

In the Mars modules, however, there are no windows, so the sense of claustrophobia is intense. The mission can only address the psychological stresses of a mission to Mars. For most astronauts, used to the physical rigours of training, that will be the real unknown frontier. They have laptops, books, music and DVDs. They have a gym and a sauna, and spaces where they can get away from others, at least for a while.

According to the mission timeline, the six astronauts in Moscow have already left Earth's orbit and are headed for the uncharted blackness of interplanetary space. Soon, the only people they will talk to will be each other – and hell, it has been said, is other people. If they stay the entire 520 days, they will be paid 3m rubles, or about £64,000. The expedition's commander, 38-year old Alex Sitev, may be looking forward the most to getting out. He got married just a month before his voluntary incarceration.

If they complete the mission and emerge relatively unscathed and sane at the end of next year, they will deserve a crack at a real space mission – if that can in fact be organised, in an uncertain post-space shuttle era. But as for flying to Mars, none of them will ever undertake the real thing; such a flight is at least 25 years away.

In coming decades then, they will only be able to dream, in the expectation that their shared experience may one day contribute to getting other astronauts there – and may one day help avoid a fist fight over who gets to take the first step out onto the Red Planet.

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