Six volunteers in matching blue flight suits emerged from behind a steel hatch this afternoon at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems, smiling from ear-to-ear after spending the past 105 days in an "isolation experiment" to try to replicate the conditions a spaceship crew would face on a manned trip to Mars.
The six included four Russians, a German and a Frenchman who entered the facility March 31 in order to see how their bodies and minds would cope with the isolation and limited communication from Earth. Two of the six are astronauts, the others are an oncologist, a sports physiologist, an airline pilot and an army engineer.
By all accounts, the experiment went well, although concrete results from the 72 tests conducted during the 105 days won't be released for several weeks. The men appeared to be in good health as they stood together in a row in front of a large assembly of journalists and staff after exiting to loud applause.
"It was a small step for mankind and a giant leap for international Mars exploration," Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German Aerospace Center, said during a news conference after the crew's exit from the module.
The experiment is part of a larger project dubbed "Mars 500." The three months the men spent in isolation are a precursor to another simulation to take place in 2010, when another crew will submit themselves to 520 days in isolation, the projected time it would take for a return trip to Mars.
In almost a year and a half, the experiment will attempt to mimic the 250 days it will take to get to Mars, a 30-day stay, and the 240-day return while the crew adheres to a strict schedule and diet.
The six-member crew lived in a cramped 19,500-cubic-foot facility where they were put through various scenarios that they would face, including a simulated landing on Mars, a 20-minute delay in communications each way with Earth and various emergencies.
Skeptics have criticized the experiment because, in the backs of their minds, the crew members knew that they could exit the capsule if they had to, unlike if they were millions of miles away from Earth. The experiment also didn't simulate some of space's basic elements like weightlessness.
"I must admit that I have absolutely lost the feeling for time on a long-term basis," German Oliver Knickel wrote in a diary entry posted on the European Space Agency Web site (which is working on the project with the Institute for Biomedical Problems). "I, absolutely, have no idea about the total length of time we have spent inside the module now."
After a quick medical, the team members arrived at the news conference and told reporters one of the reasons the experiment was successful was because they had become a very close-knit group.
"We all had some personal competence to detect in others how far we could push them," said Frenchman Cyrille Fournier, calling the group dynamic respectful and polite. "We avoided really critical tensions."
The friendship theme was repeated by each member of the team, a crucial factor in helping them maintain some sense of normalcy while cut off from the outside world.
"You were working all the time," Russian Alexey Baranov said. "Even when you were resting, you were far from family and friends. It was difficult to prepare, psychologically, for that."