To us it sounded like the premise of a particularly cruel reality TV show: Six men are picked to live in a windowless, cramped mock spaceship for 18 months to see how humans would react to conditions similar to what one would expect on a mission to Mars.
Tomorrow, after 520 days of isolation, the hatch will finally be open and the volunteers will return to normal life. With a cost of $15 million, the project, dubbed Mars500, is a serious experiment commissioned by the European Space Agency.
Reuters has more on the realism of the experience:
Clothed in blue jumpsuits, the would-be astronauts take daily urine and blood samples, eat rations like those of real astronauts and do not shower often.
Communication with the outside world comes with a 20-minute lag and the crew have faced power outages and other impromptu glitches.
Halfway through, two crew members donned 32-kg (70-pound) spacesuits to clomp about in a dark sand-filled container meant to imitate the surface of Mars.
Ultimately what it has proven is that, yes, indeed, humans could survive an 18-month journey to Mars. Here's what the European Space Agency told Wired about the results:
... Patrik Sundblad, the human life sciences specialist at the ESA, says the simulation has proved a complete success. "Yes, the crew can survive the inevitable isolation that is for a mission to Mars and back," Sundblad stated. "Psychologically, we can do it."
"They have had their ups and downs, but these were to be expected. In fact, we anticipated many more problems, but the crew has been doing surprisingly well," Sundblad said. "August was the mental low point: it was the most monotonous phase of the mission, and their friends and families were on vacation and didn't send so many messages."
Reuters also adds something interesting: "A previous 420-day experiment ended in drunken disaster in 2000, when two participants got into a fistfight and a third tried to forcibly kiss a female crew member."
The ESA will carry the opening of the Mars-500 hatch live on its website. And today, they released a 15 minute video that wraps up the last 18 months: