Thursday, May 20, 2010

Earthbound Mars Trip: 520 Days in a Wood Paneled Ersatz Spaceship

"Six men get ready for 520-day simulated Mars trip"
Reuters (May 18, 2010)

"Six men from Russia, Europe and China are preparing to spend 520 days together in a sealed-off warren to take a simulated trip to Mars to test how long isolation would affect humans."

"On June 3, three Russians, an Italian-Colombian, a Frenchman and a Chinese man will be locked up in a set of cramped compartments as the record-breaking Mars500 simulated flight to the Red Planet gets underway to last until November 2011.

" 'This 520-day flight to Mars ... is unprecedented in its overall duration,' Martin Zell, European Space Agency (ESA) head of the experiment, told Reuters.

" 'I think when talking about a human mission to the Red Planet, it will probably still take 20 or, more likely, even 30 years to go there," said Zell, who is also in charge of ESA human missions to the $100-billion, 16-nation International Space Station (ISS).

"The six men, allowed just three square meters of "personal space" each at the facilities at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems, will follow a seven-day week, with two days off, except when special and emergency situations are simulated.

"The crew, to be led by a Russian, will live and work like ISS astronauts, and their life will resemble that of Station members: maintenance, scientific experiments and daily exercise.

"During the 'surface operations' after 250 days, they will be divided, with three moving to the Martian 'surface,' while the other three stay in the orbiting 'spacecraft' for a month...."

The article kept mentioning "six men," with this photo of seven fellows right below the headline. Something didn't add up here.

Part of the answer to that mystery is in the caption - in the article's slideshow.

(from Reuters, used w/o permission)
"Seven volunteers for the Mars500 experiment, which simulates a 520-day flight to Mars, pose for a picture in Moscow May 18, 2010."

I found this Reuters article through this post in the Oddly Enough Reuters blog:

"Going to Mars: Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"
Oddly Enough, Reuters blog (May 19, 2010)

"Okay, this has got to be the most thankless job of the entire decade. These six astronaut guys are going to spend 520 days going to Mars and back.

"That's a long, long time to be away from family and cable TV and doughnuts and stuff, but this is how history gets made. This is how real pioneers rock 'n' roll.

"Except that these six aren't REALLY going to Mars. They will just be locked up in this clubhouse with attractive hardwood floors and PRETEND to go, to test the long-term impact of such a journey...."

(from Reuters, used w/o permission)

Oddly Enough's Robert Basler had fun with the (apparent) absurdities involved:

"...But I saved the best for last. These six guys are from a bunch of different countries and don't even all speak the same language. As one of the crew said yesterday, 'If we fail to understand each other, we will employ body language.'..."

The Oddly Enough post is, as usual, funny. But the European Space Agency's 520-day test actually does make sense. As the article's lead put it, it's purpose is "to test how long isolation would affect humans."

I could point out that we've got data on that already - mostly from the days of sailing ships, when it could take weeks to get across oceans. We could take information from the ships' logs, multiply by some factor to get the equivalent of that almost-75-week Mars trip, adjust for being in an air conditioned tin can (albeit hardwood paneled), and - - - maybe it would be easier to put volunteers in the can and see what happens. My guess is that they'd get more accurate results, too.

Despite what serious thinkers and science-fiction writers imagined, about the unspeakable horrors of isolation and existential angst in the depths of space - I don't think there's going to be a huge problem. These men are, presumably, professional astronauts - or at least working field scientists. I think they'll behave like grownups and stay on-task.

I'm a bit curious about the "three square meters of 'personal space' " each of the crew gets. That's could be about 2 by 1.5 meters: room for a bunk and a bit of walking space next to it. Assuming about 2 meters extension vertically, that's a fairly large volume. Particularly these days, when text and graphics can be stored rather compactly.

Well, we'll see what happens.

(from ESA - S. Corvaja, via, used w/o permission)
"The training room of the Mars500 mock Mars spaceship."

Those wood-panel walls may be a good idea. There's a lot of visual detail in wood grain - and that might be a relatively low-cost way to liven up the environment. Sure, it doesn't look science-fictiony and futuristic - but one must make some sacrifices, I suppose.

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