Moscow Launches Mars Simulation

MOSCOW (AP) - An international team of researchers climbed into
a set of windowless steel capsules Thursday to launch a 520-day
simulation of a flight to Mars intended to help real space crews of
the future cope with confinement, stress and fatigue of
interplanetary travel.

The six-member, all-male crew of three Russians, a Frenchman, an
Italian-Colombian and a Chinese will follow a tight regimen of
experiments and exercise under video surveillance.

The Mars-500 experiment - conducted by the Moscow-based
Institute for Medical and Biological Problems in cooperation with
the European Space Agency and China's space training center - aims
to reproduce the conditions of space travel, with exception of
weightlessness.

"For me, it will be mainly my family, and the sun and fresh
air," French participant Romain Charles said when asked by
reporters what he will miss most during the nearly a year and a
half of confinement.

The researchers will communicate with the outside world via the
Internet - delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the
effects of space travel. They will eat canned food similar to that
currently offered on the International Space Station and shower
only once a week or so. Crew members will have two days off a week,
except when emergencies are simulated, though they will still be in
the capsules.

"Certainly, the crew is largely on its own here, with very
limited communications with the outside world," Martin Zell of the
ESA's Directorate of Human Spaceflight told The Associated Press.
"They have to cope internally with a lot of conditions and to
organize themselves."

A real mission to Mars is decades away because of huge costs and
massive technological challenges, particularly the task of creating
a compact shield that will protect the crew from deadly space
radiation. President Barack Obama said last month that he foresaw
sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.

The crew members said they were confident of success. Diego
Urbina, the Italian-Colombian member, told a news conference that
for him it would mean "accomplishing dreams about the future,
doing something that no human has done before."

Psychologists said long confinement would put the team under
stress as they grow increasingly tired of each other's company.
Psychological conditions can be even more challenging on a mock
mission than a real flight because the crew won't experience any of
the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel.

French participant Romain Charles said he was bringing along a
guitar to warm the atmosphere. Others said they would bring books,
movies and pictures of their relatives.

The crew will split their days into eight hours of work, eight
hours of sleep and eight hours of leisure.

"The routine is much more than on a real mission, there is a
little bit less thrill," Zell said. "But I think their team
spirit, and their motivation to go there and to accomplish the
whole mission is enormous."

As part of efforts to keep the crew in good spirits, they will
play an "interplanetary" match with former world chess champion
Anatoly Karpov at some point during the experiment.

The facility for the experiment is in western Moscow and
includes living compartments the size of a bus connected with
several other modules for experiments and exercise. A separate
built-in imitator of the Red Planet's surface is also attached for
a mock landing.

The mission director, cosmonaut Boris Morukov, said the
experiment could be disrupted for medical or technical reasons or
if some of the participants categorically demand it be stopped.

"Each crew member has the right to end the experiment and walk
out," he said at a news conference. "We have had such negative
experience in the past, and I hope it won't happen during this
experiment."

A similar experiment in 1999-2000 at the same Moscow institute
went awry when a Canadian woman complained of being forcibly kissed
by a Russian team captain. She also said two Russian crew members
had a fist fight that left blood splattered on the walls. Russian
officials downplayed the incidents, attributing them to cultural
gaps and stress.

Morukov said the organizers had considered some female
candidates for the current experiment, but they hadn't been chosen
for various reasons. "Selecting an all-man crew wasn't our goal,"
he said.

Other crew members include Russians Alexey Sitev, 38, Sukhrob
Kamolov, 37, Alexander Smoleyevsky, 33 and Wang Yue, 26, from
China. The organizers said each crew member will be paid about
$97,000 for taking part in the experiment.

For Sitev, the mission captain, the experiment means separation
from his wife just a few weeks after the two tied the knot. "It's
difficult for me to part with my family, just as it is for any
other person," he told journalists just before stepping in.


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