The mission to Mars that will never leave Earth

Yesterday, six men were locked into a spaceship simulator and will not be released for 17 months. Their challenge? To test the viability of a return trip to the Red Planet

Amid much pomp and ceremony in Moscow yesterday, six carefully selected would-be astronauts began a 520-day mission to boldly go absolutely nowhere at all. The multinational sextet, who yesterday lunchtime had the doors to their small capsule sealed, will spend the next 17 months enclosed in the cylindrical mock-up spaceship, located inside a scientific institute in north Moscow. The experiment will simulate the conditions of a flight to Mars.

Despite the fact that a real manned journey to the Red Planet is believed to be at least two decades away, the scientists organising the experiment say it will help them to understand how well human beings would cope with such a long journey in isolation. The crew will have no access to telephones, television or any other modern luxuries, and will be able to communicate with the experiment's control room only by emails, which will have a gradually increasing time delay as the "journey" goes on and the craft "moves" further from Earth. All food and supplies for the mission have been loaded, and nothing will go in or out for the duration of the experiment. The six – three from Russia, one each from France and China, and one Italian-Colombian – will see no sunlight and no other people for the entire 520 days.

"Like lots of little boys, I always wanted to be an astronaut," said 31-year-old Romain Charles, a French engineer, before boarding the craft. "I kept this dream alive when I grew up so that I would have the skills if the opportunity ever came up. To answer the question of whether man is able to go to Mars is very exciting for me."

"Today is a celebration of science," added Igor Ushakov, director of the Institute of Biomedical Problems, the Russian institute that is leading the project. "We have been preparing for this day for many years."

The project is being run in cooperation with the European Space Agency and other international partners, notably the Chinese Astronaut Research and Training Centre, which is sending one of its trainers aboard the mission. During the 520 days, the crew will carry out 105 experiments to determine their psychological and physical state and chart the effects of such prolonged isolation on their minds and bodies.

"We all know that this won't be an easy experiment," said Martin Zell of the European Space Agency. "But it's very important for understanding how long-distance human exploration missions into space will work. We have to learn to live in extreme environments with limited resources and communications."

The mock-up spacecraft has four modules – one containing the living quarters, one for storage, one medical module where all the scientific experiments will take place, and one "landing" module. After the long "journey", three of the crew will emerge onto the "surface of Mars", where they will don heavy spacesuits and spend 30 days conducting experiments. The remaining three crew will stay on board the craft, supposedly orbiting the planet. The recreation of Mars itself is a small, enclosed space with a sandy floor and a starry ceiling, and it looks rather more Red Dwarf than Red Planet. The living quarters for the crew are very simple. Each "astronaut" has a bedroom of six square metres, with a bed, a desk, and a very small closet.

The crew's captain is Alexei Sitev, a 38-year-old Russian who has worked at Russia's Star City training cosmonauts. Recently married, he said it was not a huge problem to leave his wife for such a long period of time. "Of course it's hard to say goodbye to your family, but many travellers who discovered new lands disappeared for long periods. They all came back, their families waited for them, so I don't see any big problems," he said.

The crew are taking plenty of reading material to keep them busy, and photographs of their families to remind them of home. Diego Urbina, the Italian-Colombian, says he hopes to read the complete works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez during the mission, while Sukhrob Kamolov, a former heart surgeon, said he is taking a medical manual in 14 parts. Mr Urbina said he has also taken some video games, which he looks forward to playing with the other crew members.

"I've bought one of those books you always want to read but never have time for," said Mr Charles, the French participant. "It's on art history. I never know what to think when I look at paintings, so hopefully I'll have time to read it... I've also taken a guitar, just to annoy the other guys," he joked.

The build-up to the project has not been without controversy. Some reports suggested that while the five European volunteers will all be paid 3 million roubles (around £66,000) for their time in the capsule, the Chinese participant Wang Yue, put forward by the country's Space Agency, could well get much less. When Mr Wang was asked yesterday how much he would earn for the experiment, the organisers refused to let him answer, instead assuring the assembled journalists that all six crew members had signed identical contracts.

The organisers hope that all six will stick out the experiment, but their contracts state that they are free to leave at any time. Yesterday, the six insisted they would be able to tough it out, though participants in previous, shorter experiments using the same module said it would be hard.

"It was very difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to keep motivated," said Oliver Knickel, an officer in the German Army who took part in one of the preliminary experiments, and was aboard the module for 105 days last year. "For these guys, of course, it will be even harder." Mr Knickel said that during his experiment, arguments frequently broke out, mainly over how long people spent using the exercise equipment, but that they were always resolved peacefully. The six volunteers from that experiment are now "friends for life", he said.

A spokesman for the European Space Agency said that there had been nearly 6,000 applications to take part in the project, 20 per cent of which were from women. The applicants were whittled down to a shortlist of 50; 15 were interviewed before the final six were chosen.

The organisers denied having a specific policy not to admit women and said that an all-female experiment might take place in the future. A single-sex crew was likely to be more harmonious, they said, and would avoid sexual tension.

All the non-Russian crew speak English, and have been given Russian-language dictionaries to communicate with the Russians, while the Russians have English dictionaries to help them. "I think everybody here knows the importance and difficulty of this experiment," said Mr Wang, 27.

A real mission to Mars, however, remains a distant dream, as the US and Russia struggle to find the huge sums of money required for space research and exploration.

"It will definitely happen; the only questions are when and who," said Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish physicist and astronaut, who has been on two Shuttle missions and was present at the launch yesterday. "The technology could be ready 15 years from now, but it's more an economic and a political question than a technological one. Realistically, we might see a manned mission to Mars in 20 or 25 years."

The team: Space explorers keeping their feet on the ground

Wang Yue, China, 27 – Researcher

Wang studied medicine in Nanjing before transferring to China's astronaut centre where he trains the country's astronauts. He is the only member not to have come from the open selection programme but to have been proposed by his country's government. He says he is taking special Chinese inks and paper on board to practise his calligraphy skills. He plans to learn Russian during the experiment.

Diego Urbina, Ita/Col, 27 – Researcher

Urbina has a master's degree in Space Studies, and has spent time at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. His list of hobbies include scuba diving, fitness training and football – which could prove tricky within the confines of the experiment.

Alexei Sitev, Russia, 38 - Captain

Sitev qualified as a naval engineer. After training officers of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in deep-sea diving, he gave training in diving and weightlessness to the crews of the International Space Station. His wife's views on his 18 months away are not recorded.

Moscownauts in numbers

520 Number of days the earthbound astronauts will be separated from the outside world

£66,000 Payment for the full 18 month experiment for each participant - although there are reports that the Chinese volunteer, Wang Yue, will earn significantly less

180 Total space available, in square metres, to the sextet in their five-compartment habitat

36m Minimum distance, in miles, from Earth to Mars

20 Artificial time delay, in minutes, built into communications with earth to simulate satellite relay

110 Approximate weight of the space suits, in kilograms, the subjects will wear when they venture out to the surface of "Mars"

2030 Earliest likely date for a real mission to Mars