Mars 500: Countdown starts for gruelling mission in Moscow car park

Tomorrow six men will be sealed inside a mock-up spaceship in Moscow, where they will spend the next 520 days testing how well humans cope with the stress of a return trip to Mars

After a year of strenuous astronaut training, six men will clamber into a capsule tomorrow afternoon for a journey like no other. Their mission? To boldly go – well, nowhere.

The men, who were chosen from thousands of highly qualified applicants, are the crew for a simulated round-trip to Mars, a mission that requires them to be sealed for 520 days inside a mock-up spaceship that sits in a Moscow car park.

The European Space Agency (Esa) experiment, called Mars 500, is designed to explore how humans cope with the stress, confinement and severely limited company that will confront future astronauts on missions to the farthest reaches of the solar system.

To keep the would-be astronauts on their toes, agency officials will simulate equipment failures and medical emergencies. Regular medical checks and psychological appraisals will reveal how well – or how badly – the men are faring.

The crew, three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese, will spend most of their 18-month stay in the "habitable module" of the spaceship, a steel capsule the size of a bendy bus that has six sparsely furnished bedrooms built into it.

Another capsule attached to the living quarters contains a gym, an artificial greenhouse and space for supplies such as food and water. A third capsule is the medical room.

On being selected, 27-year-old Italian-Colombian engineer, Diego Urbina, said he was excited, but added: "I'm slightly worried about the unexpected things, mainly psychological, that may happen during the isolation." Another crew member, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Sitev, tied the knot earlier this year with bride Ekaterina Golubeva. The prospect of spending the first year and a half of married life away from his wife was "very tough", he told reporters.

Simonetta di Pippo, Esa's director of human spaceflight, said the men were "brave" for taking part in the "history-making experiment" and praised them for willingly giving up so much of their time.

The crew will spend 250 days performing flight tasks and experiments on their "journey to the Red Planet" before climbing into a mockup of a landing module, from which they will step out in spacesuits onto a simulated Martian surface. After 30 days working on the surface – essentially a large sandpit – the crew face a 240-day "return trip".

The only contact the men will have with the outside world will be via a radio link to the space agency's "ground control" staff. To make the trip more realistic, their conversations will have a built-in time delay of up to 20 minutes: the time it takes for radio signals to reach Mars from Earth.

Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied astronauts on the international space station and the Russian Mir station, said the crew face a tough time.

"It's not unheard of for people to be confined and isolated for a long period, but it wears on you. You get tired of hearing the other guys' stories all the time. You run out of stimulating conversation after a few months. They will need constantly to find new things to talk about and to keep themselves interested," he said.

Space agencies have simulated long missions before, though not always successfully. An experiment at the same Moscow facility in 1999 descended into chaos when a Russian captain forced a kiss on a female Canadian crew member, and two other Russians got drunk and ended up in a fist fight that left blood spattered over the capsule walls.

"People in space tend to do the same things that people on the ground do," said Professor Kanas. "They're better able to deal with stress, but they also have more stress to deal with."


Ian Sample, science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mission to Mars – in Moscow sandpit

Six 'astronauts' test human endurance in outer space and explore imitation planet surface in spacesuits

Ian Sample, science correspondent

11, Feb, 2011 @7:46 PM

Article image
Mars mission in a Moscow hangar is no joke, say astronauts

The 520-day simulated journey will provide invaluable data for a real trip, European Space Agency announces

Luke Harding in Moscow

03, Jun, 2010 @5:45 PM

Article image
European Space Agency suspends €1bn Mars mission with Russia
The ESA has commissioned a study of how to get ExoMars off the ground without Roscosmos involvement

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

17, Mar, 2022 @7:05 PM

Article image
Mars crew emerge from 18-month mission that never left the car park

The Russian experiment that simulated a trip to Mars ends with the six volunteers making an undramatic return to Earth

Miriam Elder in Moscow

04, Nov, 2011 @7:33 PM

Article image
Space crew returns after 'Mars' mission to nowhere

Six-strong ESA team end ordeal of boredom and cultural barriers in 18-month simulated Mars mission at Moscow research centre

Ian Sample and Miriam Elder

02, Nov, 2011 @8:26 PM

Article image
Spacewatch: landing site for ExoMars mission chosen
European-Russian mission’s rover will land on Mars in 2021 at Oxia Planum, north of equator

Stuart Clark

15, Nov, 2018 @9:30 PM

Article image
ExoMars spacecraft sets off in search of alien life
Joint mission by European and Russian space agencies to scour red planet for methane released by alien organisms

Ian Sample Science editor

14, Mar, 2016 @12:39 PM

Article image
Five planned missions to Mars
Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans

Tasha Kleeman

02, Dec, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Sitting in a tin can, not far from central Moscow: Russian scientists prepare for Mars mission

Six volunteers are to take part in a unique test by being locked up in small steel tins to simulate 'blast off' to space

Tom Parfitt in Moscow

28, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Fake mission to Mars leaves astronauts spaced out
Trip to Mars in pretend spaceship on Moscow industrial estate affects sleep, activity levels and motivation of six-man crew

Ian Sample, science correspondent

07, Jan, 2013 @7:59 PM