Just how grueling will a trip to Mars be? To find out, six people are going to spend 18 months in a steel capsule somewhere in Russia, with no way in or out and a 20-minute delay in all communications with the outside world. The first two ground-based "cosmonauts" have now been selected for the big Mars500 experiment, Romain Charles, a Frenchman, and Diego Urbina, a Colombian-Italian.
The longevity test will determine how easily a 500-day mission to Mars might work out from the human angle. The two chaps will be joined by three Russians and a Chinese volunteer, yet to be announced, and all of them will then be sealed into four windowless metal compartments which are isolated from the rest of the world--meaning that supplies and every piece of equipment will need to be popped inside before the door is bolted.
It's an experiment that builds on similar research performed before (including a 105-day test in 2009), but the full Mars500 is perhaps the most aggressively realistic long-duration mission emulation ever made. The notion is that the sealed environment will simulate some of the human factors that a small crew would face on a real manned mission to Mars, including limited room to move, a tight and unchanging set of colleagues, stress, motivational issues, tests of their ability to follow instructions and so on. Charles, 31, makes "composite panels," and Urbain is 26, and an electronics engineer.
As well as social factors, Mars500 will investigate basic mission parameters--for example, after 250 days a subset of the crew will enter another "landing craft" module and then simulate a landing on an artificial Mars inside another sealed chamber where they'll lumber around in specially tricked-out Russian space suits. This is why the environment is closed to the world, and why there's a 20-minute delay in communications--the one-way light-speed travel time for a signal to get to or from Mars (which may have a potent psychological effect on the participants).
The entire affair is likely to be difficult to endure--if previous experiments and a host of science-fiction precedents from Red Planet to the recent Defying Gravity TV show are any indicators at all. So Charles, Urbina and their colleagues will be able to bail out mid-test, though they can expect to have to have some serious discussions with Mission Control before they'll be allowed in the escape pod.