Six volunteers will today be locked up together in a windowless, mock spaceship for 520 days.
The ‘astronauts’ will be trapped inside the capsule for a simulated flight to Mars, and are expected to live and work as if they are on the 43-million mile journey for real.
The all-male crew will not endure weightlessness, but from today they will follow a harsh regimen of experiments and exercise.
The main task of the Mars-500 experiment is to study the effects of long isolation to help a real space crew of the future cope better with stress and fatigue.
‘When everybody interacts with the same people in the same space, habits and behavior become apparent very quickly.
‘These habits may irritate and cause indignation – and even fits of aggression,’ psychotherapist Mikhail Baryshev said.
The experiment, conducted by the Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Chinese space authorities, will simulate a 250-day journey to Mars, a 30-day surface exploration phase and 240 days return trip.
But the choice of an all-male crew has provoked criticism for ‘inflicting sexual discrimination on Mars before man has even set foot there’.
There is even a threat of a legal challenge over the absence of women, while the experiment faces criticism for failing to address the real issue of sexual dynamics which future crews to Mars may have to face.
‘The absence of women in Mars-500 Project yet again proves the presence on old-fashioned earthly gender stereotypes,’ complained Mikhail Salkin of the Moscow Human Rights Protection Centre.
‘The organisers were likely set on choosing men from the start. We suspect the endurance tests they set were more suitable to men than women, and the results will be a biased judgement because it will only apply to males, so will not five the full picture.
‘Women should have equal access to any job so we are ready to apply to the Russian General Prosecutor on this and ask him to investigate.
‘The organisers have also forgotten the social tension they can face among six men which might have been softened by having a woman on board.’.
The facility built for the experiment comprises several interconnected modules with a total volume of 20,000 cubic feet and a separate built-in imitator of Mars surface for the mock landing.
The researchers will communicate with the outside world via internet, delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the effects of space travel.
They will eat canned food similar to that currently offered on the International Space Station and take a shower once every 10 days – mimicking space conditions. The crew will have two days off in a week, except when emergencies are simulated.
ESA said the crew will also regularly play video games as part of the agency’s project to develop personalized software to interact with crews on future space missions.
French crewmember Romain Charles said the experiments will keep the team busy in isolation.
‘It’s not a jail, it’s a program, an experiment,’ he said. ‘It will be hard I’m sure, but we have a target to stay here 520 days and we will achieve it.’
Both Charles, 31, and Italian-Colombian Diego Urbina, 27, are engineers by training. China’s Wang Yue, 26, is an employee at China’s space training center.
The 38-year old Russian captain, Alexey Sitev, has worked at the Russian cosmonaut training center and the two other Russians, Sukhrob Kamolov, 32 and Alexander Smoleyevsky, 33 are doctors.
The European crewmembers will earn the equivalent of about $97,000 for their participation in the experiment; he declined to cite a figure for Wang.
A similar experiment in 1999-2000 at the same Moscow institute went awry when a Canadian woman complained of being forcibly kissed by a Russian team captain and said that two Russian crew members had a fist fight that left blood splattered on the walls.
Russian officials downplayed the incidents, attributing it to cultural gaps and stress.
A 2009 experiment that had four Russians, a German and Frenchman spending three months in isolation went smoothly.
Martin Zell, an official with the ESA’s Directorate of Human Spaceflight, said the 2009 experiment helped study stress linked with cardiovascular problems and effects on the immune system.
While the isolation experiment may give scientists ample material to analyse the problems faced by a future Mars exploration crew, technological challenges make a real mission a distant prospect.
One of the biggest is designing a compact and efficient shield against deadly space radiation.
Both the US and Russia are working on spacecraft which could be used for a mission to Mars, but design works are still in an early stage.
Last month, President Barack Obama told NASA workers in Cape Canaveral that he was committed to manned space flight and foresaw sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.
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