In a car park not so far away … It is a big brother experiment like no other, an experiment which will boldly go where few have gone – or probably wanted to go – before.
Six apparently fearless volunteers are to take part in a unique test by being locked up in what amounts to a series of small steel tins off a parking lot in Moscow for 105 days as scientists simulate a space rocket ride to Mars.
On Tuesday the team will step into a chain of cramped metal capsules, connected by cables and corrugated metal pipes, in a hangar at the back of the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems (IMBP) in the Russian capital, swing close the hatch and “blast off”.
The idea is for the 550 cubic-metre “ground exploration complex” (GEC) to recreate as closely as possible the atmosphere of a spacecraft racing through the solar system, bombarded by cosmic radiation. Any return flight to Mars – at least 34 million miles from our planet – would take between 18 months and three years, including landing and exploration.
The volunteers – four Russians, a French airline pilot and a German army engineer – will be kept under constant camera surveillance to record the physical and psychological impact of their time in the isolation chamber.
They will eat packaged rations, wash with damp tissues and spend several hours each day conducting experiments, just as astronauts would on a real space flight. They will use the same toilet as crew on the international space station, which has fans to propel waste into a “sanitary receptacle”. They will eat together, work out in a tiny gym – and may even get in to the odd punch-up.
Mark Belokovksy of the IMBP admitted the psychological pressure of living in close quarters with five other human beings could crack even the toughest guinea pigs.
“Tension is inevitable,” he said candidly. The fact the 105-day “flight” will be a single-sex trip on this occasion may be a blessing. During a similar experiment in 1999 the participants were given vodka to celebrate New Year’s Eve: two members then got in a fist fight after one tried to kiss a female volunteer from Canada.
The capsules have no windows and the explorers’ only contact with the outside world will be via an internal email system and a delayed radio link to the “control centre” positioned alongside the GEC. …