Mars Flight Simulation Experiment Ends in Moscow

Russian engineers broke a red wax seal and six men
emerged from a metal hatch beaming and waving Tuesday after 105
days of isolation in a Soviet-era mock spacecraft testing the
stresses space travelers may one day face on the journey to Mars.

Sergei Ryazansky, the captain of the six-man crew, told
reporters at a Moscow research institute near the Kremlin that the
most difficult thing was knowing that instead of making the
172-million mile (276-million kilometer) journey they were locked
in a four-piece windowless module made of metal canisters the size
of railway cars.

The men, chosen from 6,000 applicants, were paid euro15,000
($20,987) each to be sealed up in the mock space capsule since
March 31- cut off almost entirely from the outside world.

They had no television or Internet and their only link to the
outside world were communications with the experiment's controllers
- who also monitored them via TV cameras - and an internal e-mail
system. Communications with the outside world had 20-minute delays
to imitate a real space flight.

Each crew member had his personal cabin. The interiors had
hatches smiliar to a submarine's and were paneled in faux wood
according to Soviet style of the 1970s, when the structure was
originally built for space-related experiments.

The module's entrance was locked with a padlock and red sealing
wax and twine - the kind that Soviet government bureaucrats have
used for years to close up their offices at the end of the work
day.

Common facilities included a gym and a small garden, and the
modules were equipped with the new European and Russian exercise
and training equipment for biomedical research. The crew also
specially prepared meals and used toilets closely resembling those
on the space station.

Some veteran space explorers belittled the value of the
experiment, but its backers at the Russian and European space
agencies insist it will only move humans closer to a real mission.

"What we're doing is important for future missions exploring
the solar system," said Simonetta Di Pipo, director of the human
space flight program at the European Space Agency.

"The most difficult part was that the flight was not for
real," Ryazansky, wearing a blue, NASA-style jumpsuit with a large
patch reading "MARS 500," told reporters hours after he and the
crew emerged from the modules.

Crew member Alexey Baranov complained that the worst thing was
not being with his relatives: "The separation from my loved ones
and nature was depressing."

Russian TV showed images of the men - four Russians, a German
and a Frenchman - during their stay, conducting experiment, lifting
weights or lounging in leather reclining chairs, surrounded by
throw pillows and Oriental rugs.

The men said most of them gained weight during their stay,
exercising much of the time, and running experiments for medical
researchers.

Psychologist Olga Shevchenko said they avoided conflicts thanks
to a busy schedule and intense physical training. However, she said
they all complained being deprived of sights of the natural world
and separation from their families.

While officials at the Institute for Medical and Biological
Problems praised the experiment as a success and promised to
conduct a 500-day simulation experiment later this year, some
veterans of the Soviet or Russian space programs doubted its value.

"This is nothing but a test for a long isolation of average
people," a two-time cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev wrote in an opinion
column published in the Sovietskaya Rossiya newspaper daily last
month. "Such an experiment has only vague relation to
understanding the possibility of interplanetary flight."

The experiment was the second for the institute, whose previous
effort in 1999 ended in scandal when a Canadian woman complained of
being forcibly kissed by a Russian captain and said that two
Russian crew members had a fist fight that left blood splattered on
the walls.

Russian officials at the time downplayed the incidents,
attributing it to cultural gaps and stress.

Soviet engineers also tried a similar yearlong experiment, but
that was interrupted because of unending conflicts between crew
members.


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