The Mars Experiment: 520 Days in Isolation

Crew members together after one year in isolation

The French mathematician Blaise Pascal said, “Through space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; through thought I comprehend the world.” Recently, a team of astronauts in Russia explored the limits of both space and the mind…in the brave new world of a parking lot.

Intending to simulate the duration of a mission to Mars, six crew members were isolated for 520 days–or about eighteen months–in what from the outside looked like giant, multi-level storage crates assembled in an airplane hanger in a parking lot in Moscow. To make the mission as realistic as possible, no communication was allowed from the outside other than that to which they would have access in space. Pretty much that means that they could only communicate with mission control and have some internet access, twenty minute delay in speech transmission and frequent internet communication disruptions included.

Now let’s really stop and think about this situation for a moment: six men–three from Russia, one each from China, France, and Italy–confined together for over a year in a space smaller than your average high school gymnasium;  language barriers and cultural differences remain an obstacle; the rest of civilization exists just outside of your container, but you are not allowed to access it. Sounds kind of like the setting for an episode of the Twilight Zone.

But these challenges were the reason the completion of this experiment was considered a success: remaining on Earth for this duration for time was actually more psychologically strenuous than actually going on a mission would have been. Though the crew members did actually simulate landing on Mars during which they planted flags for their respective nations, even that was done in a specially designed room made to look like the Martian surface. Wearing full spacewalk-ready gear, they boldly went into an adjoining room which had been crafted for this purpose. The accomplishment of an actual mission, observing psychologists concluded, would have relieved some of the feelings of stress and tension felt by the crew members; if their mission had felt less futile they would have been psychologically healthier.

Social and psychological health was certainly at risk in this project. In 1999, a similar experiment was attempted in Russia which failed fairly dismally. On that mission, five men and one Canadian woman had been selected to be crew members, but  after two men got in a fist fight and one of them had attempted to kiss the woman the researchers monitoring the experiment pulled the plug rather than risk escalating the tension in the simulated space capsule. Chalking it up to cultural insensitivity and  overall stress, organizers claim they nonetheless considered women for this simulation…evidently they just didn’t find any that fit.

In spite of the mental stresses, the crew that emerged from the pseudo-spacecraft  in Moscow on November 4th still on speaking terms. Colombian-Italian crewman Diego Urbina even had this to say about his fellow crewmen; “It’s been an honor to having been part of this remarkable achievement, five of the most professional, friendly and resilient individuals that I have worked with,” after which he announced that he would be spending the $100,000 he earned from participating on a sports car and a vacation to “someplace warm.”

After spending 520 days pushing the psychological and emotional limits of humanity in a confined space with now windows in Russia, he probably deserves a vacation.