Mars 'spaceship' to touch down

By Shaun Walker

More than 40 years after Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the surface of the moon, the multinational crew of Russia's Mars 500 experiment will finally leave their spaceship in the coming weeks and venture out - into an adjacent sandpit.

The "spaceship" for the simulated journey to Mars is, in fact, a cylindrical metal pod located in a scientific institute in north Moscow.

For the past 233 days the six crew members have been locked inside to simulate the conditions of a trip to Mars.

After their gruelling eight-month "journey", the crew will begin their orbit of the Red Planet on February 1, and will touch down on February 12.

They will step out into the sandpit, meant to simulate the surface of Mars, and perform a number of experiments, before re-entering the capsule for the long journey back to Earth.

"They are still motivated, but there is a certain fatigue, which is natural," said Boris Morukov, the mission director and a former cosmonaut.

He said as the landing came and went and the crew prepared for another long stint inside the module, monotony would become difficult to bear. "The fatigue and the thought that the mission is over can be fraught with negative consequences."

The crew have no access to telephones, televisions or any other conveniences, and they are only able to make contact with the control room through emails, which are subject to an increasing time delay the "further away" they get from Earth.

Six men live on board the stationary spaceship - three from Russia, one each from France and China, and one Italian-Columbian.

In a blog, French participant Romain Charles explained how the crew celebrated Christmas: "For a good Christmas ambience we needed a fireplace ... [a crew member] found a picture of a fireplace and printed a big poster of it." They also made a Christmas tree out of cardboard.

Nearly 6000 people applied to take part in the project, and 20 per cent of them were women. The applicants were whittled down to a shortlist of 15, before the final six - all men - were chosen.

"There was no policy not to take women, and there were female candidates," said Morukov yesterday.

"But there is a certain psychological barrier for women - it's difficult for them to leave the environment that they are used to," he claimed.

A real journey to Mars is still some time away. Russian scientists say it won't happen for 15 to 20 years. Nasa has said such a mission would not be possible for several decades.


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