MOSCOW — 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 man 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 the 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 520-day 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 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.