Mars experiment: 500 days of solitude | Editorial

There are a handful of people who believe the Apollo moon shots never actually happened. Other people, it now appears, can suspend disbelief for long enough to create a scientifically useful trial of the psychological impact of the combination of prolonged isolation and extreme intimacy.

Unless it was a moment of life’s extremes, of life or death, you are unlikely to remember where you were 520 days ago. You may not recall very much of what has happened since. But the six men who emerged today from one of the grander experiments in make-believe – a return trip to Mars, all taking place in a hangar in a Moscow suburb – have been in a kind of suspended animation. Since 3 June 2010, through tsunamis, global economic crisis and the real-life incarceration of Los 33 in a Chilean mineshaft, they have been voluntarily deprived of most of the best bits of being alive.

The difficulties are obvious. Getting along with five different personalities and several different cultures. The food (dried), the air (recycled) and the space (cramped). The monotony. Nothing to fear, nothing to love. And although the astronaut’s-eye view of planet Earth is said to be one of the great joys of space travel – the International Space Station actually has an Italian-designed cupola, the better to revel in being in space – there was absolutely nothing to see.

Sometimes such isolation experiments have been carried out under water: then the sense of the danger of a hostile environment is real. These men awoke only a taxi ride away from a Starbucks, to the squeak of their morning blood pressure test. Their days were measured out in spaceship-type activities and a compulsory daily hour in the gym. No weightlifting, obviously. Not in space. At one point there was a simulated power failure and the cabin was filled with smoke.

So far, little of the impact of all this on the crew has emerged. There are no reports of unwanted sexual advances, nor of actual physical violence, both of which marred an earlier experiment. The videos make it look as if six blokes have found themselves not unhappily marooned in the games room of a health spa. But there are small signs of human frustration. One crew member, desperate to construct a sense of purpose, plotted the mission’s imaginary trajectory and mapped it on to planetarium software so that Mars could be seen to get closer with each passing day. The scientists observed that on the way home there were signs of lassitude. One of the men said what he most missed was the randomness of life. And as their journey neared its end, another tweeted: “life: the ultimate extravehicular activity”.

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