Friday, 4 November 2011

500 days to Mars and back, all without leaving earth

The six 'crew' enter isolation in their mock space ship on June 3rd 2010.

The Russian hypesters say we've virtually already travelled to Mars. Russia's most famous cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyov and others say it's a waste of time. It's certainly achieved little more than as an isolation experiment, but Mars 500 has been quite a feat.

The six 'crew' of the mock spacecraft have managed to stay locked in for 520 days, over 17 months. I suspect submarine crews may have managed longer, but it's still a very long time to be stuck with five other men with only routine to keep you company.

Of course that is just what a Mars mission would entail, just with varying amounts of gravity and possible death in the icy vacuum of space also thrown in. NASA is vaguely aiming for such a mission in the 2030's. Russia and it's agency ROSCOSMOS will likely be a major partner as long as the two don't do something silly and fall out. They work very closely together at the moment and both will be watching the results of this experiment with some interest.

For one of the questions the Mars 500 experiement is trying to answer is, how will us homo sapiens cope in such isolation for such a long time?

The fear is of 'social narrowing'. A human stuck in the same narrow company with nothing much to do for such a long time is thought to experience a deadening of social interaction. Scientists at antartic research stations withdrew into themselves, stopped eating together, and wore a vacant expression.

Back in orbit there have even been reports of 'space madness', with crew freaking out when they dwelled too much on the fact they were in a metal box floating in the void.

Luckily, none of that happened in this experiment. Despite many bookies predicting one or other of the participants would leave, that fights would break out and that some of them would even go insane, they've got along relatively well and no one has quit.

All six were carefully psychologically selected. They were all from scientific and engineering backgrounds, happy to bury their head in a problem or work together on one. None of them were given to childish attempts to gain power or attention. They were also well attended to from the outside world.

There were some notable moments such as when they made a cardboard christmas tree or all clubbed together to perform a guitar hero rendition of blur's song 2. But the scientists were amazed to see how much the six men came to believe in their world. When halfway through the trip a mock mars landing took place the crew took it deadly seriously. One observer noted how their heartbeats were 160 a minute. Yury Gagarin's when he became the first man in space was only 152!

Controversially the organisers at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems did decide to withhold potentially depressing news from the outside world. But the six men were allowed free communication with their families (albeit with a realistic 20 minute time delay) and had regular communication with the control room.

They'll have a full debrief and the researchers will make sure they're all sound now it's over. But they can be proud of themselves for enduring and undoubtedly contributing to the day when a real mars mission takes humanity that bit further into the exploration of space.

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