Six men who spent 18 months locked inside steel tubes in a Moscow warehouse to simulate a mission to Mars have emerged – pale but smiling – from their isolation.
The Mars500 project was designed to assess the reaction of the human mind and body to the stresses of a potential spaceflight to Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour. The European Space Agency researchers – three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese – spent 520 days inside windowless “modules”.
During the experiment three of the men carried out a mock landing on Mars, donning real spacesuits and walking across an enclosed sandy yard. They did not experience weightlessness.
Dressed in blue tracksuits with the mission emblem, the “cosmonauts” emerged slowly on Friday to be greeted by officials and journalists. “The crew has completed the experiment,” said the team leader, Alexey Sitev. “The mission is accomplished, the crew is in good health and is ready for new missions.”
Psychologists said conditions were sometimes more challenging on mock missions because the crew would not experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel.
However, the crew showed no sign of stress as they talked to journalists. “We hope that we can help in designing the future missions to Mars,” said the Frenchman, Romain Charles. His Italian-Colombian colleague, Diego Urbina, said the crew was proud to achieve the longest imitation of space flight, so “humankind can one day greet a new dawn on the surface of distant but reachable planet”.
The crew kept in touch with their families and Russian space officials via the internet, which was delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the effects of space travel. They ate canned food similar to that offered on the International Space Station.
Organisers said each crew member would be paid about $100,000 (£62,000), except the Chinese researcher, whose reward has not been revealed by Chinese officials.
A real flight to Mars is believed to be decades away, owing to the huge costs and massive technological challenges, particularly the creation of a compact and relatively lightweight shield that would protect a crew from deadly space radiation. Nasa aims to land on a nearby asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s.
Vitaly Davydov, deputy head of the Russian space agency, said the experiment would pave the way for such a mission, which should be performed with international co-operation.