Weakest link in a manned Mars voyage: probably man

International group prepares for 17-month test in isolation

October 22, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- The last time Russia put a group of international volunteers in a capsule to simulate the conditions of far-flung space travel, the mission nearly fell apart.

As they were confined together for months, tensions between two Russian scientists erupted in a bloody fistfight during a millennium New Year's Eve celebration in the cramped quarters. One of them later allegedly tried to force a kiss on a Canadian researcher, triggering a furor on the ship and off. Members of one team eventually locked a hatch to separate themselves from the Russians. And a Japanese participant, unable to tolerate the hostilities any longer, up and quit.

The results of that experiment underscore an important lesson as a new group of multinational volunteers prepares here to simulate a lengthy manned flight to Mars. In an age when the marvels of technology make it possible to land rovers on a distant planet and send probes to the sun, the most vulnerable part of any such mission might in fact be man.

Beginning next year, six volunteers from Russia and around the world will climb into an interconnected series of stainless steel capsules for an experiment designed to test the limits of self-sufficiency and the psychological demands of isolation. They will not come out for at least 520 days.

"This is not a vacation," said Boris Morukov, a cosmonaut and physician at the Institute for Biomedical Problems who is reviewing the more than 120 applications submitted so far by would-be volunteers. "It's very hard work."

A real trip to Mars and back is likely to take as long as 700 days, and the difficulties of pulling it off are manifold.

In the Mars-500 project, which will take place on the grounds of the Moscow-based institute, scientists will study how the human mind and body respond to the stresses of long-term isolation. Using closed-circuit television sets, microphones and medical monitoring equipment, they will observe the volunteers' work habits, sleep cycles, exercise regimens and personal interactions.

If the team runs out of any supplies, there will be no restocking. If someone becomes ill, the team will have to deal with it themselves. If the crew has a message - even an urgent one - for "ground control," there will be the same communication delay there would be on a real mission: 20 minutes to get word there and 20 minutes to get word back.

The aim is to determine whether and how well a group - likely to include at least one doctor, engineer, biologist and computer specialist - can live and work in a self-contained environment with enough food, oxygen, water and wherewithal to deal with any difficulty that comes its way.

"Of course, we imagine it's highly unlikely there will be anybody meeting the crew on Mars to help," Dr. Viktor M. Baranov, deputy head of the institute and project director for Mars-500, said with a smile.

With its rocky red surface and the possibility that it once contained life, Mars has long held a fascination for scientists and space buffs. In 1960, the Soviet Union launched Korabl 4 in the first - albeit failed - attempt at a Mars flyby. The last successful Soviet or Russian mission to Mars was in 1973; an ambitious mission in 1996 ended with the Mars 96 orbiter falling into the Pacific Ocean a few hours after takeoff.

Baranov thinks the desire to expand the horizons of the known universe is a fundamental part of human nature.

"The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever," he said. He was quoting Russian-born Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, often called the father of modern rocketry, whose work was critical to the development of the Soviet and Russian space programs.

The Russian space and rocket firm Energia, which helped build the International Space Station and Mir, has been working since 1960 to develop a spacecraft for a manned Mars mission. The newest model, which so far exists only on paper, looks something like the space station, with two discus-shaped landers and room for a crew of four.

Unlike some proposals, which abandon the ship in space and have the crew fly home in a special capsule, the entire Energia-made ship would return to Earth, said Leonid Gorshkov, a senior researcher and Mars expert there. Construction and the inaugural flight, which Russia hopes will take place in the next 25 years, will cost about $14.5 billion. But that's without landing, which will cost an additional $8 billion.

"It's far more complicated to send a crew to Mars, but the requirements are the same as for flying orbital missions," said Gorshkov. "We believe we've succeeded in finding the right solutions."

Viable transportation, of course, is only part of the equation. Another part is outfitting the ship to meet human needs, such as nutrition, personal hygiene and sanitation, and preparing pilots for a flight that will be as demanding mentally as it will be physically.

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