Mars-500: The Martian chronicles

A manned flight to Mars, projected in the next few decades, will be both a realisation of an age-long dream and claustrophobics’ worst nightmare. An international team of volunteers is spending several months locked inside metal chambers to study psychological effects of such extreme isolation. The prologue to the Martian chronicles – in this week’s “Space”.

Mars. The fourth planet from the Sun, our most hospitable neighbour in the Solar system. Relatively similar to the Earth, it’s the probable destination of the first manned interplanetary spaceflight – and possibly of a later colonization, considering that it has atmosphere and water, at least in the form of ice.

It’s cold on Mars, but the overall conditions there are quite comparable to some regions on our own planet.

A manned flight though would challenge crew’s capacity to live and work in an extreme isolation, amidst infinite threats of the journey no man has made before.

Oliver Knickel, Mars-500 European participant: “My name is Oliver Knickel, I’m from Germany, I’m 28 years old and I’m an engineer in the German army. I was with the German forces for three months in Afghanistan in 2002. It’s of course not 100 percent comparable, but I stayed in a tent with 10 other soldiers back then in 2002, and you were seeing the same faces every day at least for three months.”

Oliver is one of just two European volunteers selected out of over 5600 candidates to participate in an international study simulating life inside a spaceship heading to Mars. The experiment is staged just outside Moscow at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems, conducting it in cooperation with the European Space Agency.

For the current stage of the study, a team of four Russians and two Europeans will spend 105 days sealed in the modular isolation chamber imitating spaceship interiors – with an original wooden finish. After this initial period, a full 520-day study will follow up.

Cyrille Fournier, Mars-500 European participant: “I’m French, my name is Cyrille, I’m 40 years old. I work as an airline pilot on Airbus A320, so I volunteered for this experiment that ESA is conducting in cooperation with the Russian IBMP institute. It’s a challenge, it’s interesting to try to live 105 days with 5 other crew members in a reduced space and with an important workload. It’s always interesting to participate in Space exploration, even if it will only happen in many years – I hope there will be someone who will go one day to Mars.”

Launching a manned interplanetary mission would require extensive cooperation of many countries, so the first crew of Mars explorers will probably be international. Their ship, a less comfortable home away from home, will carry them through acceleration overloads and weightlessness, cosmic radiation and mind-blowing long-term isolation.

The purpose of the “Mars-500″ study is to gather more knowledge about the psychological effects of the confinement – and more experience in building a diverse international team capable to overcome all the hardship.

Oliver Knickel: “We were – for three days and two nights, we did winter survival exercise, it was 30 kms north-east of Moscow, and it was up to -27 degrees. The situation was – we’ve just landed with a landing capsule in an area like the Russian forest and no rescue services could immediately rescue us.”

Whatever the emergency, the team of Mars explorers will have no one else to rely on: the survival of the entire crew may depend of the efficiency of their cooperation.

Having limited contact with Earth, each crew member will be responsible for constantly monitoring their and each other’s physical and psychological health.

Igor Ushakov, IBMP director (Russian): “Isolation, as we know from IBMP’s experience at similar studies conducted in the 1960-s, 70-s, 90-s and 2000s, provokes a development of a complex evolution linked to the changes in informational flows in this conditions. We see complex psycho-physiological effects appearing that require psychological support and correction. The person has to find enough internal capacity to react adequately in such situations.”

Cyrille Fournier: “That’s what’s interesting! It’s the problems! If there are no problems, everything just would be all right. Of course, there will be some tensions, some sleep variations will intervene, there will be need of an adaptation to the environment which is a closed, relatively limited space without windows, but that’s what important.”

But the crew of six will have to deal with more than just being sealed inside the steel tube for three months: several glitches and full-scale emergencies are secretly planned along the simulated flight, just as they may happen on a real Space journey.

Cedric Mabilotte, Mars-500 European backup crew member: “The psychological factor takes place – the fact of being enclosed and unable to contact the Earth easily, because the distance means we can’t have a phone conversation or send an e-mail rapidly – it will take 20 minutes to reach the Earth.”

This peculiarity will be imitated as well: the spaceship prisoners will have their communication with the outside world constrained by the long delays. Any message sent from inside the isolation chamber will only be received after the due pause, and so will the eventual reply.

Cedric Mabilotte: “Here we are in the booth which contains the control deck, so here we can see how the communication with “the Earth” will be implemented. Simply speaking, we can imagine a chat like we have nowadays on the Internet – only here everything is designed to ensure a 20 minutes delay.”

Using numerous cameras installed in every chamber, scientists will keep a watchful eye after the crew, constantly analysing their responses to the adjustable environment.

Martin Zell, Head of ISS Utilisation Department, ESA Directorate of Human Spaceflight: “We will have from this very room contact to the crew inside, getting some video data, getting some voice loops and some telemetry data; however, all this with a delay of 20 minutes, like it will happen on the journey to Mars, which is a burden to everybody but it’s really a part of the simulation, because otherwise it’s too easy, it would be unrealistic.”

The knowledge gained in the “Mars-500″ experiment will be invaluable for scientific study of such aspects as stress, hormone regulation and immunity, sleep quality, mood, internal lighting and efficiency of dietary supplements.

Martin Zell: “We got enormous amount of scientific proposals, we did a specific selection of them, and now, during the last couple of weeks, the European scientists have been here, discussing with the crew the protocols and really executing training for various experiments. So far there is an important scientific feedback for the European science community from this very study, and a lot of interest, I can tell you.”

A possible attempt for a human landing on Mars is projected in the 2030s. The time is now to gather knowledge and resources so that, in the decades to come, man might step down on the red planet and turn it into our new home.

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