Welcome Back, Mars-500

“We are literally 30 seconds away from Mars.”

Oh, Shannon Leto. I may love your music and think you are gorgeous (it’s the eyebrows… though I will admit that, true to form, I really swooned when he was rocking a beard and black leather jacket), but your grasp of science is tenuous at best.

Or maybe it’s just language that is tripping you up. You do know what the meaning of literally is, don’t you?

Because even light can’t travel that fast (and for Feynman’s sake, if you bring up those goddamn neutrinos, I’ll smack you). It would take light roughly 4 minutes or so to travel from the Earth to Mars. And people? Oh, that would take quite a bit longer.

Now, the United States supposedly has plans to get to Mars by the mid-2030s, according to the Obama administration’s space policy. However, after the cancellation of both the Shuttle program and the Constellation program… well, I admit that I remain skeptical. For the United States, I see the future of space travel being oriented more in the private sector. And frankly, I’m okay with that. The peak of space travel in the United States occurred in the mid-20th century, during the great space race with the Soviet Union. In a battle for technological supremacy/dominance, we pushed further and further, eventually landing humans on the goddamn moon.

Conspiracy theorists, you walk away right now. I have no time for your “it was all in a studio” shit.

But the United States lost interest. We started working with the Soviet Union instead of against them, and once we lost that sense of competition, we really lost the bulk of our drive to push the limits of space travel (a sense of competition that the private sector could recapture in force). The science community may have continued to send various probes and missions into space, but the public didn’t really care anymore. The missions became less daring, less attention-grabbing, and the space program faded from our minds. Regular space travel became the stuff of science fiction and dreams again, not the potential reality of the 60s and 70s.

But Russia… ah, Russia never gave up. Those tenacious bastards have kept their space program alive and kicking, pushing themselves even without the United States there to keep them on their toes. These are the same folks that ran Mir, the incredibly successful space station that orbited the Earth for 15 years, which was a successor to Salyut, the first Soviet space station program. They really paved the way for the ISS, which they are a huge part of, but if you think that’s all Russia’s been up to, oh boy, are you wrong.

See, Russia and the United States… the reason the whole space race happened is because the two nations are more alike than they care to admit. Neither of them want to be second place. They are both proud, fierce nations who want to be top dog. Where they do differ is in how that tends to manifest. The United States strikes quick and fast. We asserted our space dominance when we reached the moon. We strutted our stuff, but then we were done. Game over. But the Soviets didn’t see it that way. A nation with a much longer, richer history, they have patience the United States lacks. Did we really think they just gave up? That the game was over?

If so, we were dead wrong. The Soviet Union, later Russia… they just kept working at it. Building their space program, pushing harder. They never lost sight of their goal. Sure, the United States made it to the moon. Woop-dee-fucking-doo.

Russia is going to Mars.

***

A jaunt to the moon and back in a manned spacecraft takes about a week. It takes 74 weeks to travel to Mars and back. A rather sizable difference, to be sure. Therefore, it is going to take a hell of a lot more rigorous preparation to get humans to the red planet.

And it’s not just the technology that’s going to be tested and prepped- we have to test people, as well. 520 days in an isolated hunk of metal, with only a few other people for company… that’s something most space travelers haven’t had to deal with before (a marked exception being Valeri Polyakov, who had a 437-day spaceflight with Mir).

Thankfully, this is something we can study and prepare for. And Russia’s been busy doing just that (in collaboration with the European Space Agency). First, they had a 15-day stage. Then, a 105-day stage. And just yesterday, six individuals emerged from the first full-length, 520-day isolation experiment.

This, galleons, is Mars-500.

***

The Mars-500 experiment facility is located at the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) in Moscow. This 72-square-metre faux spaceship features five different modules, though only three simulate the actual spacecraft (the habitat, utility, and medical modules). The other two simulate a Martian lander and the Martian surface.

I like that they felt the need to specifiy where all the toilets are.

So, on June 3, 2010, six men (selected from over 6000 applicants from 40 countries) entered the windowless facility:

  • Commander Alexey Sergeyevich Sitev, Russian engineer
  • Romain Charles, French engineer
  • Sukhrob Rustamovich Kamolov), Russian surgeon
  • Alexandr Egorovich Smoleevskiy, Russian physiologist
  • Diego Urbina, Italian-Colombian engineer
  • Wang Yue, Chinese instructor at the China Astronaut Research and Training Center

The experiment aimed to replicate a Mars mission as closely as possible, from long stretches of monotonous “space travel” to communication delays. It studied the effects of these stresses on the bodies and minds of the participants, as well as testing the methods of control, diagnostics, and general operation of equipment involved in such a mission, as well as simulating activity on the Martian surface.

Here’s a timeline of the mission:

That simulated landing was the biggest milestone of the trip. Three of the six crew members took the “landing craft” to the “planetary surface.” There were three separate jaunts onto the “planet,” which was really nothing more than a large domed room with sand and rocks on the floor. Still, the crew wore full spacesuits and even deployed a remote control rover (though the room couldn’t possibly prepare them for some of the particular oddities they might experience on the Martian surface). Then, they hopped back in their “landing craft” and rejoined the other half of the crew in the main vessel.

***

But just how were our “spacefarers” being studied? Their immune systems, sleep cycles, hormone levels and other vitals were constantly monitored. They filled out questionnaires. Their faces were videotaped when they were working on the computer systems to be studied for signs of fatigue, stress, and depression.

Of course, the experiment couldn’t perfectly simulate a Mars mission. The crew didn’t have to deal with reduced gravity or the dangers of rocket launches, for example. However, it was the first time psychological information was obtained through the entirety of a “space mission.” Actual space missions have provided much more haphazard information. So, while it isn’t a perfect replication, the experiment should still give us some solid data, particularly regarding that troublesome isolation issue (data that could not only be used for future space travelers, but also to help soldiers dealing with stress and fatigue).

Crewmember Diego Urbina mused about the experience:

Now that it is coming to an end, I am still convinced that this was not a journey into the cosmos, but a journey to know ourselves and our minds, to realise how important respect and communication are in order to achieve a functional crew, how fundamental are the links to the real world, thin and fragile as they may be in this situation.

Naturally, the biggest issue on such a trip is boredom. Diary entries and Tweets from the crew showcase this, highlighting their almost childlike excitement over holidays. Like Halloween, where they all dressed up and decorated their living area. And Chinese New Year, where they all apparently acted like dorks (I think I am in love with all of them). And Christmas, where they all had their own “stocking” over a picture of a fireplace and a cardboard tree. As they admitted, it was less that they were really excited about the holiday and more that it was a break in the monotony of their daily routine.

Despite this, the crew performed remarkably well, and the mission was deemed a success. And after 17 months in the facility, the six crew members emerged yesterday, all smiles after their sojourn.

Again, while not a perfect Mars mission simulation, this experiment should certainly help with planning a Mars mission in the future. The next step in planning a Mars mission would be a trip into space. Perhaps with long layovers at the ISS to simulate flight time to Mars, with a walkabout on the moon filling in for a Mars landing. But this experiment gave us some vital information about how the crew will handle such a long space venture.

As Jennifer Ngo-Anh of the European Space Agency said, “We can prepare and improve the technology, but at the end it will be the human factor – the crew – who decide whether the mission will be a success.”

It’s this kind of active pursuit of the Mars goal that makes me sure that it’s going to be Russia (working with the ESA) that’s going to be sending the first manned mission to Mars. But you know what? I don’t care who gets there first- so long as we’re going.

Because we gotta get past Pluto, yo. I hear that’s where the Mass Relay is.

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