To crack the mysteries of interplanetary space travel, you first consult with the old woman in the shack. She sits inside, surrounded by windows in a dingy little room warmed by a portable heater. You stand in the chill of the larger reception area, stooping down to a slit in the glass, and then you slide your identification papers toward her so she can give them a sour once-over. She scribbles something in a spiral notebook (there are no computers involved), and then, after a wait, you are released into the outdoor courtyard, which gives way to the monolithic concrete-walled buildings of the Institute for Biomedical Problems, in Moscow, where today—a gray morning in October 2010—the winds are howling, the pewter skies threatening snow. The grass in the courtyard is dead. On the cork bulletin board, there is a single note. Handwritten, it advises employees where to procure foam for their fire extinguishers. It is all so bleak that you feel the urge to grab a bottle of vodka and cling to it for dear life.
But wait, for there is romance alive at the institute as well. Everywhere in its vast, drafty building there are ancient gilt-framed photographs of Sergei Korolev, the mid-20th-century rocket engineer whom the Russians revere as the “father of space.” The pictures are black-and-white and dramatically shadowed, the better to highlight Korolev’s virile black eyebrows and his dreamy ambition. By 1956, Korolev had become a pioneer among space scientists, his designs inspiring serious plans to launch a manned mission to Mars. And now, at the institute he cofounded in 1963, mankind is making one small, decidedly unglamorous step toward that goal.
In a secluded area on the ground floor, six brave young men (three Russians, an Italian, a Frenchman, and a Chinese national) are simulating a mission to Mars. For 520 straight days—that’s more than 17 months—the volunteers will be sequestered in a tubular steel stand-in for a spacecraft whose 775-square-foot living area is so cramped and spare it might have been designed by Dostoyevsky himself. Mars500, as their mission is called, is jointly sponsored by the Institute for Biomedical Problems and the European Space Agency. It seeks to answer a question that looms as the EU, the US, Russia, and India all look to put a man on Mars by the 2030s: Can the human animal endure the long isolation and boredom implicit in traveling to a planet that is, at its closest, 35 million miles—and roughly six months of rocket travel—away? Will one of the volunteers crack before the faux mission’s scheduled conclusion on November 5, 2011?
When I visited the institute last year, it was hard to tell. The voyagers were sealed off from terrestrial life, each one allotted a private bunk room just 32 feet square and access to a common living room, a small gym, a greenhouse, and two minuscule lavatories. The crew’s food storage room is almost as big as their living quarters, and when they entered isolation on June 3, 2010, it contained every single calorie they would consume as they soared through “space,” then spent nine days on “Mars” (in this case a small pit of red sand) before returning and exiting a year and a half later.
Mars500 is unprecedented. Never before have six healthy males been so thoroughly isolated under such unvarying circumstances. Both public health researchers and space scientists regard them as the perfect experiment subjects—and in fact the astronauts spend much of their days pricking their arms for blood and handling vials of their own urine. They are taking part in more than 100 experiments.
But what else is going on in their tube? Last fall, I was able to make a videotape posing questions to the astronauts. I heard back from the two western Europeans—France’s Romain Charles and Diego Urbina, a Colombian-born Italian. They appeared on camera one at a time, in a dimly lit room, and their tone was earnest and plaintive. “So far we’ve done 130 days,” said Charles, 31, who has worked mostly as a quality engineer for auto companies like Tesla Motors. “But I am not counting the days one by one.”
In his video, Urbina, a 27-year-old career astronaut, said, “I believe in a humankind that is space-faring, that expands its frontiers. I believe we cannot risk losing everything we have done by putting all our eggs in one basket—Earth. “
After I watched these clips, I turned to study the four nearby surveillance monitors that track activity in the Mars500 module. Charles and Urbina were slouched in the spaceship’s living room, staring at a TV screen. Charles was strumming on a plastic instrument, playing Guitar Hero. Urbina was singing. They were wearing socks without shoes, both of them, and they were killing time. It would still be more than a year until they could step out and see sunlight.
“I like Star Wars the most, but being in here feels more like Star Trek, so I think if I had to pick sci-fi characters to feel identified with, I’d say the crew of the Enterprise.”—Diego Urbina
The Institute for Biomedical Problems is a world leader in the torture of isolation. Over the years, it has done dozens of isolation experiments, starting with a brutal yearlong trial in 1967. Today’s isolates bear the added burden of living in a reality-TV sort of fishbowl: A team of psychologists and representatives from China, Russia, and the ESA is watching the closed-circuit television monitors 24/7. “We’re looking to see if they have breakfast together and whether they are playing together,” says Elena Feichtinger, a psychologist who works for the European Space Agency and serves as the deputy project manager. “During the experiment, they are dependent on us like children. They aren’t getting care and support from other people. So they lose their basic sense of safety. They need us.”