Mars crew "lands" after 520 days in isolation

Fri Nov 4, 2011 10:38am EDT
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By Alissa de Carbonnel

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Pale-faced but smiling, the crew of a long-duration isolation study emerged bleary-eyed to a flood of daylight and applause on Friday after 520 days locked away in windowless, cramped cells to simulate the length of a journey to Mars.

The $15 million Mars500 experiment aims to answer one of the big unknowns of deep-space travel: Could people stay healthy and sane during more than six months rocketing to the Red Planet?

In a study set to recreate the psychological strain of a real Mars mission as closely as possible, the six male volunteers will briefly embrace friends and family before being ushered directly into a three-day quarantine period.

Clothed in blue jumpsuits, the would-be astronauts from Europe, Russia and China flashed waves to onlookers as the heavy metal door was shut on their home of the last 17 months in a 550-cubic-meter mock spaceship at a Moscow research institute.

"It's really, really great to see you all again, rather heartwarming," said shaky and red-eyed Diego Urbina, an Italian-Colombian participant.

"On this mission we've achieved the longest isolation ever so that humankind can go to a distant but reachable planet."

Psychologists fear a return to the noise and activity of ordinary life will come as a shock.

"Time seems to have flown by since we closed the hatch last year. But how time really felt to the crew we'll soon know. Probably we'll have a very big difference of opinion," said Igor Ushakov, head of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, which runs the "spaceship."   Continued...

<p>Mars500 experiment crew members react after leaving the mock spaceship in Moscow November 4, 2011. REUTERS/IBMP/Oleg Voloshin/Handout</p>