Russians Prepare to Go to Mars Without Leaving the Ground

500 days in suburban Moscow

In a battered brick warehouse in southeastern Moscow, scientists are preparing to confine a team of volunteers to a simulated Mars-bound spacecraft for more than a year. The half hour I spent inside the subway-car-size isolation chamber on a recent visit was more than enough time for me to appreciate what lies ahead for the volunteers and their handlers.

PHOTOS: JAMES OBERG

CLICK HERE for a slide show tour of the experiment

The simulation is really like a classic exercise in reliability engineering. One method of determining the lifetime and reliability of a mechanism is to test the components individually under much more strenuous conditions than expected—and for longer periods of time. Then you test the interaction of components with subassemblies, hoping to cast more light on what to expect from the final product.

But if the product is a manned spacecraft, and one component is its crew—”the most valuable and vulnerable component,” according to space medicine specialist Dr. Mark Belakovskiy, head of the Mars 500 project—the techniques accepted for hardware, such as testing until a component fails, become unacceptable. So how do you test the human element?

That’s what scientists at the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems in Moscow are trying to figure out. Responsible for the well-being of Soviet cosmonauts for the past 50 years, the specialists there have already conducted a series of long-term human isolation experiments in a cylindrical chamber located in a high bay in Building 5 behind the institute’s headquarters. In 1967–68, three men spent a year together there testing space gardens. Shorter tests with different prototype life-support systems followed every few years. From 1999 to 2000, a series of international teams performed simulated outer-space explorations—and mainly they discovered the dragons that lurk in inner space—inside their own heads. The Russian experts actually hope to run into similar unpleasant surprises this time, reasoning that it’s better for these things to happen on the ground in Moscow than 100 million kilometers away in interplanetary space. That’s the whole purpose of the project.

”We’ve spent the last three years convincing top management that the project is important now ,” technical chief Evgeniy Dyomin says. Some in the Russian Federal Space Agency believed it was too early to run the simulation, he says, ”But time runs fast and we need to flush out problems now, so we can develop and test solutions over the next decade.”

Last June, the European Space Agency officially joined the project, and it will provide two of the six crewmembers. In addition, various corporations are signing up as official sponsors, furnishing supplies, food, and even Swiss watches. With the foreign participation, Belakovskiy says, the project would now be on budget—a predicted US $15 million.

Teams of specialists at the institute will be monitoring the volunteers closely, but communications with them will be tightly constrained to drive home the simulated reality of being on an interplanetary expedition. Voice communication will be subjected to time delays commensurate with the growing distance between the spacecraft and Earth, reaching a maximum of 40 minutes round-trip. E-mail with family and friends will be allowed (and monitored), but there will be no Internet access. ”Free access to information may produce catastrophic results,” says Larisa Chevelyova the program psychologist.

Before the end of this year, officials told me, six volunteers would enter the chamber for a two-week ”shakedown cruise.” They will concentrate on maintaining crew health conditions and identifying critical hardware items that were initially overlooked. Several months later, six more crewmembers—perhaps including some from the first test—would be locked away for a more serious 105-day isolation mission. Their primary mission will be to validate the health maintenance procedures as modified by the first experiment’s results. ”We believe all the inadequate factors will show up in the first two months,” says Dyomin.

After scientists study results for several months and improve the simulator, the program will be ready to launch the 520-day full-up mission late in 2008. That mission could be extended to as long as 700 days, almost two full years of total isolation from the rest of the planet.

As pieces fall into place, a few unsolved problems stand out in greater relief. Dyomin confesses that one entirely ordinary Earth side process was giving him fits: ”We still don’t know what to do with the garbage,” he ruefully admits. Throwing it overboard (as the Russians did on their Salyut and Mir space stations) would cost too much in terms of the air lost with each jettison, and on a real Mars mission it would fill the skies with twinkling garbage bags that would drift for months, confusing stellar navigation sensors and potentially bumping into the ship and fouling exterior mechanisms. Keeping it inside will require strict sanitary isolation. But with decades of long-term human spaceflight experience under their belts, the team will think of something.

About the Author

JAMES OBERG is a 22-year veteran of NASA mission control. He is now a writer and consultant in Houston.

Also on Spectrum Online

For a photographic tour of the experiment click here.

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