Mars 500, a test in isolation

A Russian experiment that started just under a year and a half ago has come to an end. The test was to determine the affects of isolation on a crew during their trip to the red planet.

Photo from Creative Commons.

The experiment took place in a facility just outside Moscow. The crew of the Mars 500 was made up of a Frenchman, an Italian, a Chinese and three Russians. They spent 520 days locked in isolation. The trip to the simulated Mars took 250 days with 30 following days spent orbiting or working on a simulated planet surface. Then, the six-man crew took a return trip for 240 days. All of this took place inside of a locked 19,500-cubic-foot facility.

During their simulated trip, the crew underwent conditions similar to those experienced by a real crew flying to Mars. Their food and water was rationed, and the crew started with all the supplies they would have for the mission. They underwent days of monotonous tasks, which is where the real experiment lies.

Researchers wanted to examine the impact of isolation and monotony for extended periods of time. They examined the crew’s mental and physical state throughout the mission using a series of tests to watch for degrading conditions on any of the test parameters.

While communication with the outside world was limited, it was not entirely cut off. The crew was allowed to check their email, though it was delayed up to 40 minutes to simulate a real-life delay that would occur from the space craft traveling millions of miles away from its home planet.

This successful mission was the longest time any human being had been in isolation under a controlled environment. The previous record holder was Valeri Polyakov of the Mir space station who spent an impressive 437 days alone. This marked a milestone in the history of space explorations. Now research has shown humans are capable of sustaining long periods of time in isolation in limited amounts of space.

While the future of space exploration in the United States is up for debate, it’s clear that other nations are not just waiting idly for the next great space innovation to be made by the private sector. Increasingly we are seeing evidence that human beings are capable of great things when the time and money is there to allow them to do so. It may only be a matter of time before space is just one more conquered frontier.