Conducted by the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Biomedical Problems and designed as the preparation stage for a long-duration space flight, the Mars-500 experiment did not answer the question of whether humans can fly far deep into space and return unscathed, but it increased our understanding of the challenges of long space journeys.
Launched on June 3, 2010, the Mars-500 mission put an
international crew of six – three Russians, one Chinese man, and two representatives
from the European Space Agency, an Italian and a Frechman – in small modules
simulating a spaceship headed for Mars. The mission lasted 520 days. Each
participant will be paid 3 million rubles ($100,000) for their contribution to
A real international mission to Mars could take place after 2030
according to Roscosmos Deputy Head Vitaly Davydov. “We are planning on flying
to Mars after 2030, in
the mid-30s. That means many of us will live to see this remarkable event,”
Davydov said at a press conference following the completion of the experiment.
Davydov emphasized that Roscosmos, along with well the European
and Chinese space agencies, would make use of the scientific data obtained from
the 520-day simulated flight to the Red Planet.
“We are developing a national space strategy through 2030 based
on a federal target program we are preparing for the period through 2025. We
will definitely take into account the Mars-500 findings,” Davydov added.
The ground-based mock spaceship was built onsite at the Institute of Biomedical
Problems in Moscow.
It consisted of a landing module, an experiment module, living quarters,
storage and a greenhouse. There was also a separate module simulating Mars’s
The main goal of the experiment was to study human responses to
extreme stress when there’s nowhere to escape or obtain help. While physical
survival in isolation is possible, things otherwise taken for granted on Earth,
such as a variety of events and easy communication, are missing. Time becomes
an abstraction, and the days blend together. The lack of personal space or
opportunity to have privacy takes a very heavy psychological toll.
According to one of the participants in the experiment, “Our
beds were basically three-tier bunks, with the bottom one almost at ground
level. We decided to switch bunks every 10 days, since it was hard to sleep on
the bottom bunk due to the high concentration of carbon dioxide.”
There were no serious conflicts among the Mars-500 experiment
participants; the men locked up in the capsule mainly had to battle monotony
and boredom, especially after the simulated landing on Mars in February of this
Adaptation to cultural differences was more challenging,
however. For example, the Frenchman and the Italian couldn’t understand why the
Russians wholeheartedly celebrated the New Year but ignored Christmas. But
according to Bubeev, communication with the Chinese participant was the hardest
of all, to the extent that e-books on Chinese culture had to be sent to the
One of the biggest challenges presented by interplanetary
missions is the creation of systems that sustain the biological needs of the
people in space. Any person onboard a spacecraft is completely dependent on its
life support system, and the systems planned for use in interplanetary missions
will be radically different from the one installed at the ISS for example,
which is not a full-cycle, self-contained biosphere. Developing a system
capable of providing fully regenerating life-critical components will take at
least 10 years.
Microgravity also presents an enormous threat to the human body.
Zero gravity conditions were not simulated during the Mars-500 experiment, but
earlier American research indicates that people who spend a long time in space
suffer from bone mass loss. Observation of 13 astronauts, each of whom had
spent six months at the ISS, revealed a 14 percent loss of skeletal strength
compared to before the flight.
Despite total isolation, the crew of Mars-500 was still working
in the comfort of complete control from the ground. But in the vicinity of the
real Mars, where a signal from Earth takes 40 minutes to arrive and where
decisions may need to be made in just seconds, it won’t be possible to video
chat with family or send letters, postcards, newspapers, or gifts with a cargo
ship or visiting crew.
Nevertheless, the Mars-500 training cycle will almost certainly
prove useful in indentifying potential dangers and surprises in future
Kislyakov is a commentator for Voice of Russia.