mission to mars, mars 500, isolation experiment, russian mars experiment
AP/Mikhail Metzel
The team of researchers that will be isolated for 105 days to simulate stress and fatigue on a flight to mars.

Isolated Mars500 Astronauts in “Good Spirits” So Far; Can It Last?

April 15, 2009 10:30 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
The six-man crew is two weeks into the 105-day experiment to simulate part of a trip to Mars. Past isolation experiments have ended in arguing and bloodshed. 

Mars500 Experiment in Moscow Off to a Good Start

According to the first diary entry from crewmember Oliver Knickel, the crew remains “eager to go forward and carry out the different tasks that we have trained on for many weeks.”

This entry, written just a week after the Mars500 crew entered the isolation facility on March 31, details how the crew is still enjoying the food provided, adding some variety to it by using herbs from their small garden, how they are getting used to the excersies they need to do to stay physically fit while in isolation, and how they all seem to be sleeping quite well.

The 105-day isolation experiment, part of the Mars500 program, is a cooperative effort between the Eurpean Space Agency’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. This study is taking place at an isolation facility in Moscow, designed to mimic an actual spacecraft that might be used on a trip to Mars.

Whereas studies on the International Space Station can determine the long-term effects of space radiation and weightlessness, the Mars500 experiment is designed to help determine the effects of long-term isolation on the crew's stress level, hormone regulation, immunity, sleep and mood. The experiment will also test how food supplements affect the body when taken for a long period of time.

Earlier this year, the European Space Agency embarked on a search for the two astronauts that would accompany the crew during the 105-day experiment, starting with more than 5000 candidates, narrowing to 32, 8, and then finally choosing two.

The crew consists of Cyrille Fournier and Oliver Knickel, selected by the ESA, along with four Russians—Oleg Artemyez, Sergei Ryazansky, Alexi Baranov and Alexi Shpakov. Each member of the crew brings a different talent to the experiment; crew members have training as a doctor, a pilot, an engineer, two are trained cosmonauts, and a sports physiologist.

While “on board” the crew will have to deal with simulated and real emergencies, they will experience up to 20-minute delays in radio communication with the ground crew, as would happen if they were actually in space.

It is estimated that an actual manned trip to Mars would not be possible for at least another 20 years. However, recent advances in technologies, such as the potential to create a force field to protect the astronauts from space radiation, and a robot designed to treat psychological problems in space, may accompany a crew that attempts the actual trip to Mars someday.

Context: Past problems with space isolation

While hopes are high for the crew of this Mars500 experiment, past isolation experiments have not gone very well.

Another isolation experiment in 2000 at the Institute for Medical and Biological Problems did not end well. A woman on board said that she was forceably kissed by the captain; it was also reported that two of the crew members got into a fistfight and got blood on the walls of the unit.

Recently, reports have surfaced that the U.S. and Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station have not been getting along. Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka said that, although astronauts seemed to get along for the first few years the ISS was in existence, lately, money, space tourism, and national politics have gotten in the way, leading to arguments over use of the toilet and the exercise equipment on board the station.

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