Six Men Spent 520 Days Locked in a Room to See If We Could Live on Mars

Mars 500 crew, May 2011. That’s Diego Urbina in back, standing and pointing. Image via European Space Agency

All week, Motherboard contributor Daniel Oberhaus is exploring those isolated space analogs from around the world that have become integral in planning for long-duration space flight. This is part two of five.

As it turns out, one needn’t travel to the endless darkness of Antarctica in order to carry out a space analog study on isolation. In fact, the longest running isolation study took place in a warehouse in the middle of the 8 th largest city in the world. For 520 days, six test subjects from Russia, France, Italy, and China were locked in a module in Moscow to test the effects of isolation on small group dynamics and individual psychology.

Possible candidates were selected from Russia, China and Europe and after rigorous psychological and medical evaluations the group was whittled down to 11 people who spent the next six months training for their 520 days alone by learning the dozens of experiments they would be performing inside, practicing team building activities and ultimately undergoing the rigorous survival training that all astronauts must undergo to prepare themselves for the possibility that their module lands somewhere remote on their return to Earth.

From these 11 finalists, six were ultimately selected based on a number of criteria, although their ability to function in a small group was perhaps the most important quality sought after in the research subjects.

Diego Urbina, an engineer from Italy, was one of these finalists, and on June 3, 2010, he was locked in the Russian module with five other crew members. They would have little contact with the outside world, with the exception of placing urine and blood samples through a hatch in the front door for the mission directors. For the first and last month of the simulation, the crew was allotted radio contact with mission control and video messages, which became subject to increasing delay as the crew “approached” Mars.

Outside of that, there was no internet, no phone calls, and a twice-a-day file upload that could be forwarded by mission support to the participants’ families.

The capsule. Image via ESA/S. Corvaja

The days in the module were generally pretty full. The crew would wake up at 8 am and begin the day by running diagnostics, taking their blood pressure, and taking care of other “housekeeping” items. Over the next eight hours, crew members busied themselves with experimentation, such as simulating activities on the surface of Mars (in fact, the module had an entire compartment just for this purpose, complete with red dirt floors). After dinner, they were on their own for finding things to keep them occupied.

“There were periods that were less busy and those were really hard,” Urbina told me. “I didn’t really get bored because there was always something to do, but we really strived to keep our minds busy on something.”

The crew whittled away their year and a half in the module by playing video games, reading books, and watching movies. According to Urbina, the crew was particularly fond of Counter Strike.

“It was the favorite game by far,” he recalled. “It’s funny, I tried to introduce some other video games, but none of them caught on. It was exciting because it was a real team activity-the Russians against the rest of the world.”

As for himself, Urbina spent a lot of his downtime reading, making it through 27 books throughout the course of the Mars500 project. Urbina set himself a goal to read all the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez during his stay, a goal that he fell short of, but nonetheless considers integral to his successful completion of the mission.

“The best [advice I could give to someone going on a long duration space flight] is look for small and medium term objectives,” he said. “Really keep your mind busy on these objectives that give you a sense of accomplishment. That’s what I found most valuable.”

“I missed the world in general. Seeing things move, seeing cars, dogs, the sun”

Like the subjects at Concordia, Urbina’s experience was generally positive. Unlike some of his comrades, he had no trouble sleeping and actually managed to enjoy himself during his stay. Nonetheless, there were aspects of the experiment that he found difficult to cope with.

“I missed the world in general. Seeing things move, seeing cars, dogs, the sun. My colleagues were amazing, and I couldn’t have picked better people to be locked up with, but you start missing meeting new people on nights out, the social variety,” he said. “For me, that was the trickiest part.”

The crew emerged from the module on November 4, 2011 wide-eyed with smiles plastered across their faces, looking somewhat stunned as members of the media exploded with questions and bulb flashes. As Diego related to me, the crew managed to learn a lot during their time on Mars, not only about the finesse of Counterstrike, but also about the physical and psychological stressors inherent in a long-duration journey to the Red Planet.

As laid out on the Mars500 website, there were 10 primary scientific purposes for conducting the experiment, ranging from testing the efficacy of life-support systems aboard spacecraft bound for Mars to methods of forecasting the health and work capacity of astronauts on board based on various diagnostic tests. Although the crew certainly registered some psychological anomalies during the mission (see: insomnia), other elements of the experiment were more promising, such as the ‘Salad Machine’ experiment, which provided crucial insight into how to grow fresh vegetables in such unfavorable conditions.

Perhaps one of the most successful aspects of the simulation were a number of dietary experiments sponsored by Erlangen University. Producing accurate results from experiments which involve manipulating subjects’ diets is often very difficult as it usually requires weeks of monitoring eating habits and extensive follow-up testing, which can mean that the data derived from these experiments is often unreliable. This is where Mars500 participants were able to offer some solutions: their inability to leave the module provided a perfect sample group for monitoring the effects of dietary manipulation.

“It was tricky because we had to eat exactly what they gave us. No more, no less. I think that [the Erlangen experiment] was the hardest experiment of all of them,” said Urbina. “Then when we ‘arrived’ on Mars we were eating the same canned food they eat on the ISS. On the way back it was mostly dehydrated food where you have to add hot water before eating it.”

For the first year of the mission, the diets of the crew members were entirely regulated so that the Erlangen team could study the effects of drastically reducing the crew members’ salt intake over time. As the research team found, the body’s salt balance was even more complicated than they previously assumed, a relationship that offered interesting insights into the effects of salt on blood pressure and human metabolism.

While most people might think 500+ days of isolation from the rest of society would be enough for a lifetime, Urbina says he would still have no scruples about traveling on a mission to Mars. While he isn’t interested in a one way mission, Urbina doesn’t think he would have any problems on a round trip journey, since there is always the hope of coming back.

“Coming out of the module after 520 days was the weirdest experience of my life. It takes some time, maybe months, to get used to it. It’s like arriving in a different world,” he said. “I would definitely go to Mars, I wouldn’t doubt it. But having the hope of coming back is something we thought about every day.”

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