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Volunteers flock to space experiment

27 March 09 08:12 GMT

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

What would you be prepared to do for money? For $6,500 (£4,500) a month, to be precise?

How about the following: locking yourself inside a small metal container for three months without any communication with the outside world, with electronic monitors attached to various parts of your body and with frozen baby food and cereal bars for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

To add to the fun you'll have five companions who will do everything possible to stop you trying to escape before the three months are up.

Meanwhile, from a control room outside, a team of scientists will monitor your every move checking for any signs that you are starting to crack up.

And banish all hope of finding solace through alcohol or tobacco. Both are strictly forbidden.

Experiment

So it may come as something of a surprise to know that this well-paid, extreme version of Big Brother and The Weakest Link attracted 6,000 applicants from 40 countries.

And next Tuesday the fun will begin for the six lucky people who were chosen to take part.

After a news conference and with cameras flashing they will walk to a collection of linked cylindrical containers inside a dreary building in Moscow, open the heavy hatch and disappear inside.

All in the name of an unprecedented experiment called Mars 500 which has been talked about for many years and is now finally happening.

The six volunteers from Russia, France and Germany believe they are playing a small part in the making of history by bringing the long-cherished goal of a manned mission to the planet Mars one step closer.

Using the current generation of rocket engines, a trip to the Red Planet and back could take up to two years (compared with less than two weeks for a mission to the Moon).

So space agencies around the world vying to win the race to Mars have to be certain the next generation of astronauts will be able to withstand the psychological and physical trauma of extremely long periods of space travel.

'No fun'

The Mars 500 experiment here in Moscow will focus on the psychological difficulties of prolonged isolation and claustrophobia.

"It's a real probability that a flight to Mars would fail if the very serious problem of isolation is not investigated first," says Oliver Knickel, an army engineer from Germany who is one of the volunteer "astronauts" for the experiment.

"The impact of the isolation would almost certainly kill the crew on board."

Whether the six volunteers taking part in the current experiment will come to blows is a moot point.

"It definitely will not be fun," says Sergei Ryazansky, the commander of the mock spaceship.

"Each test subject [volunteer] has the right to go out at any moment but of course it will influence the whole experiment.

"So we will try to support him and make life for him better.

"Each crew member understands that it's our goal to go all the way."

Few comforts

And that will certainly not be easy judging by what we were allowed to see of the inside of the mock space-craft earlier this month.

Its cheap, stripped-pine interior was mostly bare, although we were told this was because the scientific equipment had yet to be installed.

There were a few home comforts, including a large flatscreen TV, a plastic kettle and an empty fridge.

But overall it was cramped, airless and without windows.

The sleeping quarters are particularly small and apparently not well sound-proofed.

Each of the volunteers is allowed to bring one suitcase of personal belongings including books, music, DVDs and games such as chess.

They will work shifts of up to 10 hours either during the day or at night, when they will be busy conducting scientific experiments and ensuring all the on-board systems are working properly.

Claustrophobia

They won't have much free time.

"You have to cope with the environment - that's the main point," says volunteer astronaut Cyrille Fournier who is a commercial airline pilot from France.

"You can be psychologically normal but some people may be claustrophobic or think something will happen.

"That's not the case for me, so I am quite confident."

It was all laughter and smiles as the "astronauts" left us to complete the final stages of their training before the big day.

And if all goes well with this experiment, then early next year another "crew" will be locked inside for a total of 520 days.

Any volunteers?

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