Mars500 Mission – An Exercise in Isolation

It’s been just over a month since the European Space Agency “launched” the Mars500 project, an earthbound simulation of an interplanetary mission to Mars. Six men climbed into a windowless mock spaceship on June 3rd to spend the better part of 520 days sequestered away from the world, with only books, games, work, shoddy internet, sleep, and each other to pass the time. The unprecedented simulation of a manned mission to Mars includes a 250-day period to get there, a 30-day visit, and a 240-day trip back home.

Critics argue that the experiment amounts to little more than locking up 6 men in a tin can for 17 months with no sun, fresh water, sex, or alcohol, and the hardship of showering only once every 10 days.

The ESA, in cooperation with the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems, aims to study the severe psychological stresses that such an isolated and confined journey presents. Their diet will be similar to that served on the International Space Station, and the only time in the next 520 days that the hatch will open will be if one of the crew pulls out for some reason. His body would be “pushed out” to space as if he had died.

The frailties of the human body are greatly exposed in such a world. For example,what happens if a crewmember were to suffer appendicitis on an actual journey to Mars? Should prophylactic appendectomies be performed on all astronauts? This issue has been considered, with on-board diagnosis and surgery as the best contingency plan, according to some.

The simulated spaceship consists of three separate modules, each subdivided. The Utility module houses a gym, greenhouse (with meager strawberries), storage, fridge, and lavatory. The Medical module contains working places with medical equipment, a kitchen-dining room, and another lavatory. The Habitable module consists of 6 individual compartments (bedrooms), a living room, a main console, another kitchen, and another bathroom.

Further inspection of the medical module reveals a 3 x 12 meter tube with two “examining rooms,” a toilet, and equipment for medical examinations. Telemedical, laboratory, and diagnostic equipment are included. Should a crewmember become ill, he can be treated or isolated here. The crew includes two doctors, one of whom is a surgeon. In prior experiments bacteria grew quickly in the nooks and crannies of the space capsule simulations, and so the crew will be armed with probiotic supplements and antibiotics if needed. Hopefully a crew of six men will not forget that sanitation (i.e. cleaning up) has been the most important weapon against contagion in the history of mankind.

The Mars500 project will take place under normal Earth gravity conditions, and so the health aspects of such prolonged weightlessness will not be studied. Rather, this mission focuses on the physiological and psychological aspects of an isolated journey (longer than the six-month maximum expeditions currently taken to the International Space Station). Stress, hormone regulation, immunity, sleep quality, mood, and effectiveness of dietary supplements will be studied with the crew routinely collecting a lot of urine, blood, and probably stool.

The volunteers are entirely male, purposefully selected without a woman to avoid the confounding sexual tensions that might arise. In 1999, participants in a comparable experiment were given vodka to celebrate New Year’s Eve: two members then brawled when one tried to kiss a Canadian female astronaut.

Humans have of course been subjected to much worse isolation in our history. Prisoners of war, princesses in towers, the kidnapped children who live 15 years in someone’s basement – all endured much worse psychological punishment.

Yet I do find it fascinating how we flirt with the reality of our isolation in the universe, and the Mars500 experiment is just the most recent academic example. Consider the marathon runner who embarks upon a solitary trial of endurance, or the brave few who’ve rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, or the researcher who studies and dies alone on the North Pole. Such courage and self-control in the face of oblivion is the stuff of Melville, Marquez, and Camus.

I’ll be following this project with curiosity and admiration.


8 thoughts on “Mars500 Mission – An Exercise in Isolation

  1. Arkayeff

    This makes “Big Brother” look like a children’s tea party. Do you think they will squabble and form little sub=groups. Sounds like hell to me.

    Is this impulse to put ourselves in peril something that has resulted in humans achieving so much, as well as giving rise to The Darwin Awards.

  2. robin andrea

    Fortunately, experiments like this are probably self-selecting. People who think they can endure such privations are drawn to them. I would never step foot in a place like that. I already know it would drive me insane. As you say, many have endured far more stark and serious deprivations without the incentive of scientific study. It will be interesting to watch how this unfolds.

  3. Kendra

    Very cool. I’m also very happy to read that someone had the incredibly bright idea to perform an experiment involving isolation and vodka. Brilliant research, really!

  4. Matt M

    How about communication with the outside world? I would think that there would be a built in delay to the voice and video communication. It would get longer as the subjects get further from “Earth”. That would be hard, falling out of touch with friends and family, and the loss of the ability to have a true conversation. There would be only questions, answers, and statements – and waiting for a hour or more for a response.

  5. chairman meow

    There are so many potential health and other issues w/ the Mars trip, maybe this experiment will allow them to experience ones they hadn’t even thought of. good idea not to bring females, god-forbid one would get pregnant during the trip.

    i guess things like blood clots are also a fear, not to mention otherwise dormant mental health issues? I can’t imagine how they would do such a trip…

  6. Greg P

    Things like this are, I think, a reality check to the longstanding science fiction idea of travelling to other solar systems, other galaxies.
    Yes, I suppose one can envision some sort of workable suspended animation, some long distance propulsion for such a vehicle, but what of the psychological consequences? Taking such a trip with no hope of returning, or returning when everyone you knew was long dead, returning to a society where you are not needed and not welcome, maybe returning to a lifeless Earth…

  7. David Harmon

    Of course, this is only one of the several challenges facing any such mission. Besides the isolation issue, there’s the support/biosphere issue (note the abject failure of “Biosphere 2” and similar experiments), the zero-gravity issue, the radiation problem, and the many challenges of actually getting humans from orbit to the planetary surface. (Let alone if you want them to come back….) That’s just offhand, I may have missed a few!

Comments are closed.