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Welcome “Back”: A Very Real 520-Day Journey To A Fictional Mars

Six would-be astronauts are confined for an unprecedented 17-month experiment in social confinement that is helping to lay the groundwork for extra long missions in space.

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MOSCOW -- If it were true, they’d all be set to become worldwide heroes. On Friday in Moscow, six men will have their hour of fame all the same: after 520 days of confinement in a container simulating a spaceship returning from Mars, they will emerge in front of a gaggle of journalists before being whisked away for medical quarantine. They won’t talk to the press before November 8. And that is how the longest experiment in human confinement to date, called Mars500, will end.

It was June 3, 2010 when six “astronauts,” three from Russia, one from China, one Frenchman and an Italian-Colombian, closed the door on their 200 square-meter abode, at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP). Ahead of them lay a 17-month simulated “journey” towards the red planet. The idea was to respect the real duration of a trip to Mars: 250 days to get there, 240 days to get back and 30 days to explore.

During that time, the six men did some 100 experiments, including studying their brain functions, completing physiological analyses and describing changes in their bodies. But the most interesting part of the study was the effects of confinement -- and the stress it generates -- on their psychological state. “The experiment shows that, yes, a team can survive, psychologically, the isolation that is implied in any trip to Mars,” said Patrik Sundblad, a life sciences specialist at the European Space Agency (ESA).

This particular experiment did not attract attention immediately, since it is not the first to test the challenges of isolation, although previous tests had mixed results. In 1999, participants in an experiment at IBMP that simulated a stay on a space station came to blows after a Russian man tried to kiss a female Canadian colleague.

“The six members of Mars500 had their ups and downs,” Sundblad continued. “But, actually, we expected more problems.” Among the good moments that the French “astronaut,” Romain Charles, will remember, is New Year’s Eve, “thanks to our Russian colleagues’ contagious excitement,” he wrote on his blog. And another striking memory: The “arrival” on Mars, when the team left the space ship to explore the “surface of Mars,” that is, sand in a hangar that simulated a Martian atmosphere. “At that moment, our spirits were at a maximum.”

On the other hand, the “return” to earth was somewhat less cheery. “After months of doing the same experiments, it was difficult to have as much interest as in the beginning.” And the crew couldn’t even look forward to their meals, which were freeze-dried and stocked before setting out. “We had a weekly cycle for our menus, with very little variation. We could change it a little based on our preferences, but our favorites disappeared quickly.”

The worst period for the team was between July and September 2011. “It was vacation time. We saw a serious decrease in the number of messages we got from our friends and family,” said Charles. The six astronauts did communicate with their friends and family virtually, although with a 20-minute delay as would be the case if they were in space.

The team was always asking for information about current events in the world, Sundblad added. “The recorded soccer matches from the 2010 World Cup were very much appreciated.”

Three times a week, Olga Shevchenko, a psychologist, would hand-pick news about current events, and send it to them from the command center, while discussing their psychological state. Her goal was to keep the experiment going, knowing that at any moment the participants could stop and leave.

Does that mean that the participants didn’t receive bad news, international or personal, like an accident in their family? “No, all pertinent or important information was communicated to them though official channels,” assured Sundblad. They would have found out about it anyway from friends and family, with whom they exchanged information privately. Shevchenko told the New Scientist magazine that worries can be amplified because the participants “feel completely powerless.”

All of the psychologists said that the group dynamic was good. Even during the two simulated breakdowns: a week-long interruption of all communications with Earth, and a loss of electricity for 20 hours.

Sundblad said the mission was a success, in large part because “everybody always played along.”

For the French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy, one of the most important findings from the experiment was that a group could maintain social cohesion in closed quarters for so long. “Being able to be together in stressful situations during a long confinement is important if you want to take on a real voyage to Mars at some point,” he said. According to John Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute in Washington, being able to effectively work together is half the battle for a successful space mission. “This experiment will help us better identify compatibility criteria to select an ideal team for a real trip to Mars,” Clervoy added.

Why weren’t any woman included in this adventure? “It wasn’t intentional,” said Sundblad. “There weren’t any qualified female candidates in the last selection phases. But it is clear that a coed environment would have increased the social complexity of the experiment.”

Another positive outcome from the experiment was the international collaboration, both among the team members on board and in their communications with the command center “back” on Earth.

Still, Mars500 doesn’t come close to simulating all of the aspects of a real trip to the red planet. In particular, the effects of dangerous cosmic rays present in space and the absence of gravity were not addressed. Clervoy, the French astronaut, says that several space agencies are considering long-term experiments on the international space station between 2015 and 2020 to study those effects, though it could require dedicating the space station exclusively to the experiments. Logsdon says we are still far away from a real trip to Mars: but adventures like the Mars500 are also a way to keep the dream alive.

Read the original article in French

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