Mars ‘astronauts’ are still friends after 520 days locked up together

After 520 days locked in a container in a Moscow car park with just each other for company, the six would-be astronauts hailed as Russia‘s newest pioneers have made their first public appearance.

The three Russians, two Europeans and their fellow volunteer from China took to the stage still dressed in the blue jumpsuits they wore at their exit ceremony on Friday, and sat quietly as officials attempted to repair a broken translation system. One hoped the technology inside the experiment – and on any future mission to Mars – would be more co-operative.

The men were all smiles, hailing new friendships born and knowledge gained during 18 months in lockdown. The fact they emerged alive – not just unbruised, but collegial – is enough for Russian space officials to shower the six men with awards and endless praise as though they had actually travelled the millions of miles to Mars.

“We are very good friends, even family members now,” said Wang Yue of China as they were presented to the press at a grand hall inside the state-run news agency, RIA-Novosti. He said that during downtime he kept busy by working on his Chinese calligraphy and reading books. Roman Charles of France taught him how to play guitar, though he preferred Hey Jude over Charles’s favourite song, Rocket Man.

“First of all, thank you for coming back,” said Alexander Kovalev, space reporter for RIA-Novosti, forgetting, perhaps, that the mission never went anywhere. “It’s a personal victory for each of you.”

Russian officials have gone to great lengths to present the experiment as an unmitigated success. Most of the press conference was taken up by the presenting of gifts – medals from Russian space officials, lucky red plates from the Chinese and visors from the European Space Agency. “You haven’t seen the sun for one and a half years,” said Christer Fugelsang, an astronaut with the ESA. “Maybe you need to protect your eyes.”

Yet questions remain: Were there really no fights? Did everyone really get along all the time? And how did these six men, starved of the affection of loved ones, make do among each other?

“There were no conflicts,” Sukhrov Kamolov, one of the Russian volunteers, told the Guardian. “If people are together for a long time, this can happen, but we understood in space it can become serious.” The solution?

“We had a sign up that said: ‘a fly can grow into an elephant'” – a Russian saying akin to “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill”.

Asked about his gaunt appearance, Kamolov insisted his 24 kilogram weight loss had been intentional. “I didn’t want to publicise it, but it was one of my plans,” he said. Charles said the same thing. He lost 10 kilograms and said “it was a wish on my part”.

How did they cope without their loved ones? “It was very difficult, of course, not to see my wife, and also my kids, but there was a goal and I had to keep my eye on it,” Kamolov said. Asked if the lack of affection was difficult, he answered: “I am a man.”

“It was known from the start that for one year and a half I wouldn’t see my girlfriend,” said Charles. “We coped like all people living far from each other cope – we exchanged messages and talked about the moment we’ll meet again.”

Charles said what he missed most were “cheese, wine and a nice crunchy baguette”. Alcohol was only broken out for birthdays and holidays. “It was powdered wine. As a Frenchman, I can say, it was not wine.”

The Russians were more stoical. “I served in the army,” Alexander Smolevsky told the press conference. “After living through that, you can live through any experiment.”

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