MOSCOW (Reuters) - Clad in a blue jumpsuit and waving, crew member Sukhrob Kamolov quipped "See you in 520 days!" before hopping into sealed-off chambers Thursday with five other men taking part in a simulated trip to Mars.
To cheers and air kisses from their wives and relatives, three Russians, a Chinese man, a Frenchman and an Italian-Colombian entered the wood-paneled modules where they will live until November 2011, in an experiment to test how isolation affects people.
"So many experiments out there must be done for the first time, and this is what we are doing for Mars," Anatoly Grigoriev, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told reporters before the crew "departed."
But the European Space Agency (ESA) said it would be at least 30 years before humans could go to Mars, adding it would take up to nine months each way to reach it.
Unlike a real trip to the Red Planet, the crew on the record-breaking Mars500 simulated flight, housed in Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems, will have gravity and no exposure to radiation.
But as on a true Mars mission, there is an alcohol ban, no fresh air, vegetables must be grown on board and the only contact with Earth will be via e-mail, with a 40-minute delay.
"When I was a little boy I asked if I could go to Mars and I am now proud that I am part of making this one day happen," said Frenchman Romain Charles, who added he will bring along his guitar for entertainment.
Wang Yue, who had trained to be an astronaut in China, said he would learn Russian during the 520 days spent closeted away to communicate with the rest of the crew.
Though both English and Russian are official languages on the simulated trip, not everyone has a common tongue.
Led by Russian commander Alexei Sitev, the crew will live and work like astronauts from the $100-billion, 16-nation International Space Station (ISS), and they will split their time between experiments and exercise.
No one will be allowed in or out of the interlinking capsules, where the men -- who were picked out of almost 10,000 applicants and are aged between 27 and 38 -- will conduct dozens of psychological tests and live in six-meter squared bedrooms.
Thirty days will be spent camping on a red sand-covered Martian surface, lined with black rocks backlit by ruby and whose curved roof glistens with fake stars.
Though over a thousand women applied for the venture -- which dictates "astronauts" must be under 185cm (6ft 1in) -- females are notably absent from the mission.
"It is harder for a woman to be taken out of life and put in isolation," said Mars500 project director Boris Morukov.
"The most important thing here is motivation, and limitations would upset women. You're not allowed to talk on a telephone," he added.
The crewmembers said they would miss women terribly during the simulated trip but that the sacrifice was worth it.
"It will be hard but I just try to recall all the great travelers who found the New World and who were also without their families," Sitev said.
Last year four Russians, one German and a Frenchman successfully completed a 105-day simulated space trip at the same institute.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Charles Dick