Six astronauts participating in the international Mars-500 experiment stepped out of their windowless Mars spaceship simulation module and back into Earth's sunlight for the first time in over 500 days. The experiment successfully demonstrated the capacity of humans to survive the journey to Mars and back.
In addition to achieving a great step towards the future of human space exploration, the Mars-500 experiment probes the psychological requirements for living communally in small spaces, the self-sufficiency of a spaceship 'biosphere', and the challenges of space travel to human health.
Simulated Mission to Mars
The Mars-500 experiment simulated all the major milestones of a real mission to Mars. The crew saw the hatch close on their last glimpse of earth's sunlight on the third of June 2010. On the 15th, the crew simulated undocking from a space station to begin the journey towards Mars. After reaching Mars orbit and conducting a successful simulation of a Mars landing on 1 Feb 2011, the team simulated explorations of the Martian surface in three separate egress exercises. A month after landing on Mars, the team began its journey back to Earth.
Throughout the experiment, the team lived in isolation intended to simulate an actual space mission. They had communications with the outside world only over telecommunications devices, with delays simulating the time for signals to reach their projected position in space. The crew grew their food in greenhouses in the utility module, which also housed a gym and a refrigeration unit for storing food and other supplies.
The crew -- consisting of two European, three Russian, and one Chinese astronauts -- spent most of their time in a 3.6m X 20 m (775 sq ft) habitation module which included 6 individual compartments, a kitchen-dining room, a living room, the control room, and a bathroom. The facility also includes a medical module and a landing simulator. The utility modules lies tucked underneath the Martian surface simulator, a larger chamber that was used only during the one-month long Mars landing simulations. It simulates the Gusev crater, an area explored by robotic Martian landers and believed to have water under its surface even now.
The Anti-gravity Generation Device
The facility suffers from two important limitations, which will reduce the breadth of conclusions possible from its success. First, the facility did not subject participants to the radiation levels typical of space travel.
Second, the crew was not subject to extended living in low-gravity. The weightless photo at the top of this article represents the sense of humor of astronaut Diego Urbina, who tweeted the manipulated photo with the message: “Finally fixed the anti-gravity generation device!”
Alpha Males Need Not Apply
The job description required Mars-500 mission members to be 25-50 years of age, fluent in both Russian and English, and have special skills that contribute to rounding out a robust team capable of meeting all foreseeable challenges of space travel, with an emphasis on medical and engineering skills. Candidates for this successful Mars-500 mission had to pass endless medical and psychological tests.
An earlier experiment failed 420 days into the project, when two crew members got into a drunken fist-fight, and a third attempted to forcibly kiss a female project member. Sadly, there were no females in the crew that successfully cooperated to the end of their 520 day mission. But there were also no alpha males. Candidates were carefully selected for their ability to work as members of a team and to compromise.
The Next Steps Towards Space Travel
The Mars-500 experiment will continue with careful follow-up and monitoring of the participants, who will certainly be challenged by the return to daily life. Italian crew member Diego Urbina (who also has Colombian heritage) told BBC news via Twitter that he looks forward to "bumping into strangers" after the long period of isolation. Russian astronaut Alexei Sitev will certainly look forward to a honeymoon with his wife -- after marrying his sweetheart just before the Mars-500 mission began. Following these men as they return to life on Earth will help scientists to prepare for human travel to distant destinations in space.
The successful Mars-500 mission will also help overcome a major obstacle to space travel. The publicity and positive attention generated by the mission will help to overcome resistance to investment in space exploration, especially at a time of economic difficulty. With the population exceeding 7 billion, humanity may need space to grow.
More on Mars:
Would You Travel One-Way to Mars?
Scientists May Have Found Flowing Water on Mars
Spirit Lives On. Bogged Mars Rover Gets New Job
Self-Cleaning Solar Panels From Mars Find Their Way to Earth