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Updated: August 13, 2010 21:54 IST

Six men in a box on a mission to “Mars”

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A file photo shows a team of researchers, four Russians, a German and a Frenchman, being greeted after ending an imitated flight to Mars in Moscow on July 14, 2009.
A file photo shows a team of researchers, four Russians, a German and a Frenchman, being greeted after ending an imitated flight to Mars in Moscow on July 14, 2009.

While the Russian capital swelters and coughs through a summer of 40-degree heat and smog from rampant forest and bog fires, six young men live sealed inside a container, at a constant 22 degrees Celsius.

The crew of three Russians, one Italian, a Chinese and a Frenchman have already spent more than two months simulating a flight to Mars and back.

The entire “mission” is slated for 520 days, because a round trip to the red planet is estimated at about 15 months.

The “Martians” have yet to encounter boredom in their more than 60 days of seclusion so far.

“None of them wants out,” said Peter Graef, Chief of the German Aeronautics and Space Agency (DLR).

All six are still enthusiastic about the test of mental endurance, and routines are developing.

Italian participant Diego Urbina wrote on Twitter that he is still having dreams about people outside the capsule.

Reminiscent of the Big Brother television show in which contestants are forced to live together in a few rooms under constant, closed-circuit surveillance, the “spacecraft” is packed with cameras that document around-the-clock whether the test subjects are conducting the 100 assigned research projects.

“It’s huge, how the boys participate,” Jens Titze, a medical researcher at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, told the German Press Agency dpa.

Titze and his nutrition team developed the meal plan far in advance. All are expected to eat what is on the menu, while not forgetting their regimented urine tests, he said.

One test is the impact of dietary sodium on blood pressure, and the latest technologies are allowing the scientists to precisely follow their patients.

German Army Captain Oliver Twickel spent 105 days under observation in the test capsule in Moscow. He calls the current Mars500 project “the most complicated experiment in the history of spaceflight,” because of the uncertainties that await the six participants in the next 450 days.

“Experience grows as the motivation sinks, because you’ve done all the same jobs repeatedly already,” Twickel said, describing his own experience over time.

In these first few months, psychological and physiological tests are keeping the crew busy.

“After waking up, everybody has four or five assignments to complete before breakfast,” Romain Charles of France wrote in a personal journal entry on the website of the European Space Agency.

Free time is limited, but the space “travellers” seem to be using it well. Chinese participant Wang Yue has been teaching Charles the complicated art of Chinese calligraphy.

Charles recently had a birthday, celebrating with his roommates with thawed cake and powdered wine. He even had the luxury of receiving a telephone greeting - in French - from a friend living in Moscow.

“That’s no longer possible,” Graef said.

In the simulation, the spacecraft has travelled too far from Earth to receive voice transmissions. Getting answers from ground controllers takes ever longer for the crew, as radio signals take 20 minutes from Mars to their home planet.



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