520 days of solitude

Last week six men climbed out a tin can in Russia, having lived in isolation inside it for the last 520 days. They looked victorious, but the world’s news media were about to greet them with one enormous shrug.

What kind of psychological effect would stepping onto the Martian surface for real have on a person?

The crew of the Mars500 experiment – three Russians, two Europeans and a Chinese – had spent since March 2010 rammed into a small metal crate in a Moscow hanger. They have been taking part in an experiment designed to simulate some of isolated conditions that would be encountered on the long trip to our nearest neighbouring planet.

The event has received much attention in the news, but most of it is negative. This Daily Mail article is a good example. ‘What is the point of this experiment?’ ask the nay-sayers. We can’t hope to realistically replicate the conditions Mars travellers would experience – after all, the ‘cosmonauts’ know they can leave at any time if they really have to – so how is it any help?

It’s true to say that there are many elements of what a trip to Mars would be like that this experiment in no way replicates. How would being almost weightless for three years affect the body? Would the pioneering travellers even have any muscles left to take what we would presumable call a gargantuan leap on to the surface of Mars? How would the crew deal with a serious illness on board or the 20 minute delay in communication with distant Earth? How would dealing with meteorite showers impact their mental health?

This experiment does not tell us the answers to these questions – but it was never intended to. Instead, what the researchers have done is conducted an experiment where the variable they have the power to control are controlled, and the ones that are not are taken in account in the conclusions.

It’s not actually possible to exactly simulate the feelings a man might have when he is 200 million kilometres away from the nearest safe supply of air without actually putting him in that situation.

Some have suggested that we should be using the International Space Station (ISS) to conduct these kinds of experiments instead. This would undoubtedly better simulate the weightlessness aspect of the journey, but unlike Mars500, contact with the ground is instantaneous and there are always things happening – new experiments to conduct, jobs to do and people arriving and departing on an almost daily basis. It’s not mundane in the same way as a Mars trip would be, and to suggest this utterly misses the point of the experiment. Of course, it also costs a lot of money put someone on the ISS compared to a steel tube on the ground.

Another criticism is that, well, we’re not exactly likely to send men to Mars soon, considering NASA has suffered funding cuts in 2011. But, on the flip side, they are also about to send a hugely advanced rover  (named Curiosity) to the planet, one that is so much more advanced than previous vehicles that this one is the size of a mini cooper. So there is no denying that Mars is very much on the NASA agenda.

The mistake that many have had made in critiquing this project is mistaking an individual experiment for an actual attempt to get to Mars. Going to the red planet is the mother of all research projects, and it will take many small steps like this one before we even get close.

[Edit 05.12.2011] This article was also published in London Student. Click here to view the digital edition and flick to page 25.

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2 Responses to 520 days of solitude

  1. Audrey says:

    Very interesting.

  2. Akshat Rathi says:

    I agree with you that the experiment was definitely worth doing. Plenty of lessons learnt (http://www.astrobio.net/pressrelease/4329/lessons-from-mars-500) for the price of the experiment in my opinion.

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