One of the more unusual chapters in humanspaceflight history has come to an end with the return to Earth of thefirst-ever manned mission to Mars.
Or, at least, with the formal end of a “full-length,high-fidelity simulation of a human mission to our neighbouring planet”. Thatis, six “astronauts” have opened the door to an isolationcapsule at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow and stepped outside. Since closing that door 520 days ago, this dedicated crew havesimulated a mission to Mars, including launch, interplanetary cruise, landingand excursion, and return home. To make the trip seem as real as possible,communications with the crew were even delayed for several seconds to simulatethe time lag in radio chatter that would be experienced in a spacecraft atimmense distances from Earth.
Now, for a few more days, they will enjoy someprivate time and relaxation before talking to the media on 8 November in Moscow; their missioncontinues into early December, as they go through an exhaustive series ofdebriefings, tests and evaluations to collect the mission’s final data.
The Mars500 project may sound a bit mad, but its purpose is to answer aquestion absolutely critical to any future attempt to actually visit the redplanet – could a human crew actually cope, psychologically and physically, withsuch a prolonged separation from home?
The simulation was rigorous, by a crew which could reasonably be selectedfor a real trip to Mars.
On board were French composites engineer Romain Charles and Italian electronicsengineer Diego Urbina, who has trained at the European Space Agency’s astronauttraining centre and participated in projects including a 2010 Mars DesertResearch Station exercise in Utah.From Russia,Sukhrob Rustamovich Kamolov is a surgeon and isolation-conditions specialist, AlexeySergevich Sitev is a navy diver who has trained astronauts for weightlessness,and Alexandr Ergovich Smoleevskiy is a military physician and flight medicineexpert. China’sYue Wang is another medical doctor and astronaut trainee.
As ESA director Jean-Jacques Dordain noted as the Mars500 astronauts emergedfrom isolation, any real mission to Mars will necessarily be an internationaleffort. To resolve technical issues like long-term life support with nosupplies from Earth, adequate fuel supplies for the journey and protection fromsolar storm radiation will be a massive challenge taxing even the collectiveefforts of many nations. Coming up with the money to do it, of course, may beeven more challenging.
But in the meanwhile early indications are that a crew, at least, could pull off its end of the bargain.