More than 40 years after Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the surface of the moon, the multinational crew of Russia's Mars 500 experiment will finally leave their spaceship in the coming weeks, and venture out – into an adjacent sandpit.
The "spaceship" for the simulated journey to Mars is in fact a cylindrical metal pod located in a scientific institute in north Moscow. For the last 233 days the six crew members have been locked inside to simulate the conditions of a trip to Mars. After their gruelling eight-month "journey", the crew will begin their orbit of the Red Planet on 1 February, and will touch down on 12 February.
They will step out into the sandpit, meant to simulate the surface of Mars, and perform a number of experiments, before re-entering the capsule for the long journey back to Earth.
"They are still motivated, but there is a certain fatigue, which is natural," said Boris Morukov, the mission director and a former cosmonaut. Talking to reporters in Moscow yesterday, he admitted that as the landing came and went and the crew prepared for another long stint inside the module, monotony would become difficult to bear. "The fatigue and the thought that the mission is over can be fraught with negative consequences."
The crew have no access to telephones, televisions or any other conveniences, and they are only able to make contact with the control room through emails, which are subject to an increasing time delay the "further away" they get from Earth.
Six men live on board the stationary spaceship – three from Russia, one each from France and China, and one Italian-Columbian. In a recent online blog, the French participant, Romain Charles, explained how the crew celebrated Christmas: "For a good Christmas ambience we needed a fireplace. This kind of device is quite difficult to find in a spaceship," wrote the almost-astronaut.
"However, Diego had the solution to our problem. He found a picture of a fireplace and printed a big poster of it." The crew also made a Christmas tree out of cardboard.
Nearly 6,000 people applied to take part in the project, and 20 per cent of them were women. The applicants were whittled down to a shortlist of 15, before the final six – all of whom were men – were chosen.
"There was no policy not to take women, and there were female candidates," said Mr Morukov yesterday. "But there is a certain psychological barrier for women – it's difficult for them to leave the environment that they are used to," he claimed.
Initially, the organisers had said that a single-sex crew had been chosen to reduce sexual tension. An earlier, mixed-sex experiment at the same institute a decade ago descended into chaos when a female Canadian crew member claimed she had been sexually assaulted by the Russian male captain, while two other crew members had a fist fight.
A real journey to Mars is still some time away. Russian scientists say it won't happen for 15 to 20 years, while Nasa scientists have said that such a mission would not be possible for several decades. In an October edition of the US-based Journal of Cosmology, scientists suggested sending a crew on a one-way mission to Mars, meaning that the first astronauts to travel there would be settlers as well as explorers.
The return leg is by far the most difficult technological aspect of any potential trip, as it would double the need for food and supplies, and require the ability to launch from Mars.
The editors of the journal said that although they had not solicited any applications, they were inundated with letters and emails from more than 500 people who wanted to be among the first Mars pioneers.