The term “cocooning” came into use by design editors after September 11 as shorthand for the tendency, real or imagined, to linger in the safety of one’s home. The term is enjoying a second life now that evenings out are a financial strain.
The Russian space program took cocooning to a whole new level on Tuesday by locking a six-man team into a mock spaceship for a 105-day stay simulating the isolation of space travel. Early next year another team will check in for a 520-day confinement, roughly the duration of a round trip to Mars with a month-long stop on the planet.
The isolation experiments are meant to lay the foundation for a Russian-led trip to Mars, known as Mars 500, sometime in the next 20 years. In preparation, Russian authorities have made a science of cocooning. Of all the dangers a Mars mission would face, they consider the crew’s physical and psychological welfare the most crucial. Dr. Mark Belakovskiy, head of the Mars 500 project, called the crew “the most valuable and vulnerable component” of the trip.
So how have the Russians designed for deep cocooning? On the space shuttle NASA provided only sleeping bags slung like hammocks and sleeping capsules that resemble morgue lockers. But the Russians consider personal space crucial to well-being over a long haul, so the mock spaceship inside a brick warehouse on the outskirts of Moscow contains six individual wood-paneled compartments for crew members, each with a narrow bed, desk, chair and shelves. It may be disappointing to learn that it looks more like your freshman dorm room than a set from 2001: A space Odyssey or Barbarella.
The lockdown also includes a kitchen-dining room, a living room, and a control room. Limited to three tons of water, the crew will use napkins to wipe off grime and a sauna to steam off dirt. They will eat dehydrated food and breathe recycled air. Not unlike the producers of reality TV shows, behavioral scientists will watch for signs of conflict via video cameras mounted throughout the cramped rooms. Viewers of MTV’s Real World will not be surprised to learn that boy-girl conflicts can sour a mission. So this time it’s an all-male crew. During an isolation experiment 10 years ago a Russian man twice forcibly tried to kiss a female colleague, setting off a minor international incident. She accused him of harassment; by way of response, Russian officials called her hysterical and depressed. This time around team members will likely face more conventional problems, like what to do with the garbage.