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

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

ByABC News
May 18, 2010, 12:12 PM

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."