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MOSCOW: After a gruelling 520-day mission cut off from loved ones, sunshine and fresh air, six pioneering astronauts left their cramped capsule and emerged – into a Moscow car park.
They looked tired and pale but, above all, relieved after giving 18 months of their lives to a bizarre experiment designed to simulate a voyage to Mars and back.
At 2pm on Friday, a Russian scientist approached the capsule’s shoddy metal door, turned a handle, broke a flimsy string seal and opened the hatch. Just like that, the months of uninterrupted isolation, total lack of sunlight, monotony and voluntary hardship were over.
The humdrum nature of the event was no reason to forgo an outpouring of lofty rhetoric hailing the achievements of the Mars 500 experiment. ”We have achieved, on Earth, the longest space voyage ever, so that humankind can one day greet a new dawn on the surface of a distant but reachable planet,” Italian volunteer Diego Urbina said, though space officials admit a manned trip to Mars is not being considered for at least 20 years.
Friends and family were at a hangar in the car park of Moscow’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems to greet the crew – three Russians, one Italian, one French and one Chinese.
Blue jumpsuits hung baggily from the men’s thinned frames and sagged around their skeletal wrists as they waved hello to the friends and family, who awaited their ”return to Earth”.
During their 18 months as human guinea pigs, the crew were free to communicate with ”mission control”, as well as with family and friends, but with 20-minute gaps to recreate transmission in space.
The crew were taken to a Moscow hospital for a three-day quarantine, and doctors will check that their immune systems have not become compromised during their time spent ”away”.
Russian scientists chose an all-male crew after an attempt at a similar experiment in 2000 went horribly wrong when a Russian astronaut tried to force a French kiss on a Canadian woman astronaut.
Scientists have yet to report any conflicts inside Mars 500.
Guardian News Mediabizarre experiment, car park, space officials, air six, video feedback, phar lap <BR/>
NASA officially signed over the ownership of Endeavour, its youngest space shuttle, to the California Science Center in Los Angeles Tuesday, setting the stage for the retired spaceship’s delivery to the museum next year.
Space agency officials handed over Endeavour’s title during a ceremony at the science center and plan to deliver the space shuttle in the second half of 2012.
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“NASA is pleased to share this wonderful orbiter with the California Science Center to help inspire a new generation of explorers,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “The next chapter in space exploration begins now, and we’re standing on the shoulders of the men and women of the shuttle program to reach farther into the solar system.”
The California Science Center is one of four institutions across the country selected by Bolden to serve as the permanent home for NASA’s space shuttle vehicles. Bolden announced his decision on April 12 of this year, the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch in 1981.
“Endeavour now will begin its new mission to stimulate an interest in science and engineering in future generations at the science center,” said California Science Center President Jeffrey Rudolph.
Endeavour flew its final space voyage in May, when the shuttle visited the International Space Station to deliver a $2 billion astrophysics experiment during NASA’s STS-134 mission commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly. NASA built Endeavour to replace the shuttle Challenger, which exploded and broke apart just after liftoff in 1986 while carrying a crew of seven astronauts.
While Endeavour is destined for California, its sister ship Atlantis will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Discovery, the oldest and most-flown of NASA’s shuttle fleet, will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The museums had to commit to cover the $28.8 million cost of preparing and delivering a space shuttle for display.
NASA’s Enterprise prototype shuttle, which was used for landing tests but never flew in space, will be sent to New York City to be displayed at the Intrepid Sea, Air Space Museum. Enterprise is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Enterprise will eventually be replaced by the shuttle Discovery, according to NASA’s plan.
One other NASA shuttle, the Columbia orbiter, broke apart in 2003 while returning its seven-astronaut crew to Earth. Damage to the shuttle’s left wing heat shielding caused the accident, NASA later found.
NASA retired its space shuttles in July after the shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth to end the 135th and final mission of the space shuttle program. That mission delivered vital supplies to the crew of the International Space Station.
Space agency engineers are currently working on Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour to make them museum-safe, work that includes removing propellant tanks that carried toxic rocket fuel.
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