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Mars 500 study: Mission in a Russian "jail"

For a total of 520 days six volunteers will simulate a manned flight to planet Mars in a container in Moscow. TV-shows such as "Big Brother" are a vacation in paradise compared to that. Still folks from all over Europe entered for the selection procedure.

The setting of Mars500 in the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow
Picture by IMBP

One and a half years in tightest quarters with five other grown-ups that you only got acquinted with recently; no fresh air, dull food, 24-hour-camera-surveillance and almost no contact to the real world out there: This sounds very much like an extreme version of one of those container shows like "Big Brother", that flooded TV-channels a few years ago. Or like the daily grind in a high security facility for convicts.

But actually we are talking about the conditions that a crew would have to bare on the first manned flight to Mars. Never before human beings had to deal with such a permant stress - at least not voluntarily. And before anyone invests billions of dollars to send a crew on another planet for the first time in history of mankind they want to know whether this as actually feasable. Simply said: Whether the first Mars visitors will manage not to kill each other during this trip of 250 days, the one-month stay and the 240-days-return flight back to earth. In the meantime experts aren't even sure yet if its smarter to send a mens-only crew or a mixed one with women.

Therefore the European Space Agency ESA started the "Mars 500 Project" together with the Russian "Institute for Biomedical Problems". This project will simulate such a full-length flight to Mars in the kosmonauts training facility in the center of Moscow. The application time is just over. "The response were incredible" says Marc Heppener from ESA, who is also responsible for the science projects on board the International Space Station "ISS" in an interview: "We have received more than 5600 letters of application that we have to sift through and down to half a dozen in the months to come.

Scraggy interior of the Mars simulation station IMBP in Moscow
Picture by IMBP

"Among these candidates" knows astrophysicist Gernot Grömer from the Austrian Spaceforum who was heading the simulation-project "Austromars" in the desert of Utah/USA some time ago, "there are quite a few who have not the slightest idea what is awaiting them. Among them are even former convicts that refer to their "long years of experience". Those who are chosen should be aware that the will be literary spoken off the surface of the Earth for three years - if you add the hundred days of training. For a breaf moment I was thinking of entering into the project myself, because it is a very special task to be a part of such a pioneer mission. On the other hand it is quite a bit of your life you are investing.

According to insiders there are even more than a dozen candidates listed for "Mars 500" from the small country of Austria. Whether this are single-students hoping for an extra-long vacational job or managers with a burnout hoping for a chance to leave noone knows. Only if they manage to get into the final round of selection will the names be announced. This data is confidential to ESA.

Graph: This is how the areas inside the Mars500 mockup in Moscow are used
Picture by IMBP

In 2009 finally the sewer port will close for the six participants. And they will have to go along with what they have on board for the next 520 days. The so called habitat of the "IMBP" has been serving the Russian spaceagency for many years now and looks more like the plywood version of a standard Moscow building from precast concrete slabs (see photo) from the sixties rather than a space ship, "but" says kosmonaut Sergej Ryazansky in our interview, "it does the job". Ryazansky has already completed one of these (shorter) training camps on board the wooden spaceship dummy and knows the oppressive fealings that crawl upon you over time: "I started every day with the opening of the small onboard greenhouse. The smell of plants and earth remembered me of home. That made my work a lot easier."

Marc Heppener: "It definitely makes a big difference, if the "Mars travellers" know that the could hop off in case of an emergency or if there is just deadly space out there. But it can be compared to a good video game where the user forgets the world around him..."

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© A report by Tobias Micke (07-11-07) – Contact