A Mission to Mars (on Earth)

“Our main challenge right now is to avoid being bored. Every single day is very similar to the previous one.”

At the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow, six men (three Russians, an Italian, a Frenchman, and a Chinese national) are finishing up a remarkable 520-day experiment in isolation. They are participants in a simulated mission to Mars about a “ship” dubbed Mars500.

Bill Donahue, the author of the Wired piece, had a chance to interact with the participants:

When I visited the institute last year…The voyagers were sealed off from terrestrial life, each one allotted a private bunk room just 32 feet square and access to a common living room, a small gym, a greenhouse, and two minuscule lavatories. The crew’s food storage room is almost as big as their living quarters, and when they entered isolation on June 3, 2010, it contained every single calorie they would consume as they soared through “space,” then spent nine days on “Mars” (in this case a small pit of red sand) before returning and exiting a year and a half later.

I did find the betting on who would quit the program a bit unsettling:

Isolation is hard; being deprived of fresh air and social variety makes you go batshit. That narrative is so ingrained in the collective psyche that when the Irish bookmaking chain Paddy Power set odds on Mars500, it all but anticipated failure. If a bettor wagered a dollar that the original six-member crew would not last the whole mission, he was, by Paddy’s lights, practically predicting the sun would rise tomorrow—he’d only get $1.20 back. Paddy, meanwhile, set 8-to-1 odds that at least one crew member would go “clinically insane” after leaving the Mars500 experiment. (Fairly long odds until you consider that most jobs don’t come with an 11 percent chance that you’ll go clinically insane in a year and a half.) The Irish bookie even set odds as to who’d be first to quit. It tapped the sole Chinese astronaut, Yue Wang, putting him at 2-1. (Yue was, after all, the most culturally isolated.)

And if you think everything is rosy aboard the Mars500, consider what has happened in a previous isolation experiment (in the year 2000):

The booze wasn’t the only contraband aboard that simulated space station run. The ship’s Russian cosmonauts regularly watched pornography, Kraft admitted, and one Japanese man, Masataka Umeda, left the mission two months early in protest. Meanwhile, there were cockroaches in the showers and mice crawling up through cracks in the floor.

The experiment sounds quite unpleasant, but these men are doing it for science!

Being aboard Mars500 is mostly menial and toilsome—the astronauts are glorified lab rats. Scientists are keeping close tabs on how the isolates’ hearts are coping with the stress of confinement. They are monitoring the microflora in the crew’s intestines, subjecting them to questionnaires on their interpersonal dramas, and hitting them with regular doses of blue light to gauge its effect on their psychological states. The regimen is at times exhausting. “The biggest challenge for me,” Charles wrote in one email, “is the width of my bed—60 centimeters. As soon as I have more than one device to wear during the night (for blood pressure tests, electrocardiograms, electroencephalograms, etc.), I can’t move.”

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