BEE-LINE TO THE FUTURE: A Simulated Trip To Mars

Robert Bee
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The European Space Agency’s Mars-500 project simulates a trip to the red planet. Six astronauts were confined in a Bio-Dome for eight months without sun or fresh water until they finally reached Mars. On February 24th three crew members entered a descent module without an engine, and landed on a giant sandpit inside a large hanger in Moscow. For 30 days the crew used drills and geological tools to perform experiments and drove a virtual buggy over Mars. Currently, the crew is returning to Earth where they will land on November 5th. The $15 million project studies the psychological and technical hurdles of traveling to Mars. Overall, the crew, which has three Russians, two Europeans, and one Chinese member, will spend 520 days inside three interconnected modules.

I can certainly understand that this simulation has some scientific merit, but there are problems with it. If someone gets sick, that person can be removed from the capsule, thus the stress level remains a lot lower than on a real mission. The simulation cannot duplicate weightlessness (which in my mind is very unrealistic).
They do duplicate the inconveniences of the flight, such as a 20-minute delay in communication and limited supplies. The astronauts are confined together in trailer-sized capsules and only get three showers a month. They jettison their waste by putting it into an airlock where ESA staff collects it. The monotony of the trip is challenging for the astronauts, who try to avoid boredom with books, DVDs, and video games like Guitar Hero. A French crewmember taught a juggling class (which wouldn’t be possible without gravity). The chief problem with the simulation is that there is no real danger. At one point the capsule had difficulty with its electricity. If that had happened in a real mission, they might have died. A more realistic simulation could take place on the International Space Station because there would be no gravity, and no instantaneous evacuation if there were a problem.

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Staffwriter Robert Bee is a professional librarian and a freelance writer in New Jersey. He's also Republibot's resident futurian. He can be reached at rightrob@republibot.com

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