MISSION TO MARS: Europe, Russia & China Prepare

No daylight. No fresh air. No contact with the outside world for 18 months. On 4 June 2010, six men in Moscow entered a special-purpose isolation chamber for 520 days in a simulated trip to Mars. The mission will reveal the effects of prolonged space flight on the human body — and whether six people can live in a confined space for so long without coming to blows.

The project, “Mars500,” is the longest human isolation experiment in the history of space exploration and conducted at the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow.

Out of 6,000 applicants, mission officials chose three Russians and representatives from Italy, China, and France for the all-male crew. (Women were excluded after a cosmonaut aggressively attempted to kiss a female colleague while blaming “inter-cultural differences” during a previous experiment.)

The men will spend the next year and a half living in a cramped series of pipes without sunlight, direct communication with the outside world, or normal food. The experiment will study the effects of extended space flight, but after researchers noted a link between lunar cycles and male hormone levels, they also included plans to examine another phenomenon: “masculine menstruation.”

Researchers hope the results of the project — funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) –will eventually lead to an actual Mars mission. The project is already described as a “history-making experiment.”

“Mars500” crew will be experiencing in real time what it would be like to fly a mission to the planet Mars. Scientists estimate a mission to the Red Planet using today’s technology would take around 520 days. That consists of 250 days for the journey there and 240 days for the return journey, as well as 30 days for the stay on the surface of Mars.

Researchers have even constructed a model of the inhospitable surface of Mars in one container — with sand, stones and lights to imitate the stars in the sky.

The men of the Mars500 project are submitting themselves to a strict regime: ♦ For 18 months, they will be giving up fresh air, daylight and any direct contact with the outside world. ♦ Any radio conversations they have will come with a 20-minute delay, just as if they were floating in outer space. ♦ The men will not even be able to choose their own food, as every meal has been planned by a medical team at the University of Erlangen with levels of vitamins and calories measured exactly.

Participants of a previous study that ran for 105 days last year say that the monotony was the worst thing. “Afterwards I learned to appreciate the small things — the blue sky or birds singing,” says Oliver Knickel, a German engineer who participated in that initial study for the European Space Agency (ESA).

In Russia, the Mars500 project receives much attention. The conquest of the Red Planet is considered a prestigious undertaking and, contrary to U.S. attitudes, the majority of the Russian population supports the nation’s expensive space ambitions — 65 percent believe that a mission to Mars is necessary.

“The Russians know that this mega-project can only be achieved as an international effort,” notes René Pischel, head of the ESA office in Moscow. The Mars500 project is also a dress rehearsal for international cooperation in outer space.

Of course, the mission cannot simulate every aspect of space flight. The men of the Mars500 mission will not be exposed to cosmic rays, nor will they experience the long-term effects of zero gravity. The experiment is designed to look into how human beings react to the extreme effects of a long space flight, and above all how they deal with such a long period of isolation.

The future of space exploration seems now to reside in the hands of Europe Union, Russia, and China. The United States and its people have no plans nor adequate funds for advancement in space, and will in the coming months have no spacecraft to visit even the International Space Station. Americans will pay Russia/EU to taxi its astronauts to the station. Who knows, perhaps even the Chinese will ferry us in their manned space vehicles in trade for our space station ownership share!

Critics further argue, “NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science…. The US will still be working on launching people on rockets that do not exist while Russia, China and India are actually doing it.”

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