'Astronauts' Prepare to Leave for 520-Day 'Mars' Simulation

Crew will spend 520 days in capsule to simulate a trip to red planet.

MOSCOW, May 18, 2010 — -- It's what the show "Big Brother" would look like if a space agency produced it. An international crew is counting down the days until they enter a mock spacecraft in Moscow where they will live for more than a year -and-a-half to study the toll isolation and cramped spaces would take on the mind and body on a trip to Mars.

The six-man crew -- made up of volunteers from Russia, China, Italy and France -- will enter their "ship" on June 3 for a 520-day stay during which they'll conduct nearly 100 experiments. Their days will be strictly divided into three eight-hour segments for work, leisure (they recently bought a Wii) and sleep.

"I'm a little bit nervous because I don't know what's coming ahead, but happy and excited and I want to go as soon as possible," said Diego Urbina, an Italian-Colombian selected as one of the two Europeans and at 26, the youngest taking part in the project.

"We're trained to cope with [the nerves]," Urbina's French crewmate Romain Charles told ABC News. "We don't know exactly what will be difficult; we know we'll have difficult moments."

Russian Alexei Sitev got married a month ago to a medical worker from St. Petersburg. The lack of sex for the next 17 months "worries us, but it is better not to think about such things," he said. "Then you will be able to live through it."

The 2,000 square foot capsule at Moscow's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems is divided into four modules: a living module where each crewmember has his own room, along with the kitchen and living room; the medical center and sick bay are in another module where most of the experiments will take place; a gym, greenhouse and food storage unit make up the last big module; and the fourth, smaller module is a landing capsule and faux Martian surface (essentially a large sandbox) for the simulated landing on the Red Planet.

"It's not that small when you go inside," said Charles, before admitting that "after 520 days it could look small."

Mars Simulation Will Test Team's Nerves

The project aims to simulate as many conditions of a trip to Mars as possible, gravity and radiation being two of the biggest elements that can't be replicated.

Perhaps most comforting to the crew is the knowledge that they can walk away at any time, though none show any sign that they're remotely considering it.

Halfway through the trip, three of the crew will break off for a simulated Mars "landing," with spacesuits and all. Thirty days later, they will rejoin the others in the main capsule and settle in for the 240-day trip back to Earth.

The men have been preparing intensively since December, undergoing a series of medical and psychological tests as well as team-building exercises like a forest survival course in the dead of Russian winter. The team members from other countries speak varying degrees of English, so the Russians have also been brushing up on their English, and the non-Russians on their Russian.

With their "departure" just days away, the crew is cramming their computers and e-book readers with movies, music and books. Not having enough entertainment "is my main worry right now," said Urbina.

Limits on what the crew can bring are apparently quite lax, they bought the video game Rock Band to pass the time with the full set of two guitars and drum set.

The crew will be able to communicate with the outside world, though when they're farthest away from Earth, there will be a 20-minute delay between the capsule and the control center. They plan to blog every week, and Urbina will update his Twitter page (www.twitter.com/diegou).

A shorter version of the project took place last summer over the course of 105 days. It was hailed by managers as a success and laid the groundwork for this longer experiment.

"Certainly the end point for human exploration in our solar system is Mars," said Martin Zell of the European Space Agency. "In terms of ambition we are close. In terms of achievement we are certainly at least 30 years away."

"We really want to see in the overall context -- how we can master such an operation of such duration," he said.

For the crew, the project is a chance to work with space agencies that they hope one day will send them into space.

"When I was a child I wanted to be an astronaut," said Charles. "I tried to keep my skills and education valuable for an opportunity in the space industry and maybe one day I could go into space."

When he saw an ad posted by the European Space Agency (ESA), he jumped at it.

"It's great for me to see the space industry from the inside and help for the next stage [of space exploration], which will be Mars," said Charles.

The crew now has a few days off before their launch to square away their lives and say their goodbyes.

"I need to settle a lot of things before leaving earth for one year and a half," says Charles.