To Mars

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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Six men undergo an 18-month ordeal in a confined space to check if humans can make it to the Red Planet.

On 4 June, six men began an ordeal that seems to be lifted straight out of TV reality shows; it certainly makes Big Brother look like a walk in the park. They have agreed to spend 18 months cooped up in a confined space with no physical access to the outside world, working ten-hour shifts, showering once a week and communicating with the outside world with a 40-minute time lag, with cameras following their every move.

But unlike a reality show, these six men—three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian and a Chinese—are involved in some serious science. They are part of the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems’ Mars-500 mission, which simulates an actual 520-day space journey to Mars. The ‘journey’ will be divided into a 250-day trip there, a 30-day stay on its surface, and a 240-day return trip. During this time they will actually live out conditions on such a journey, allowing scientists to check the psychological and physiological stress that humans will eventually have to undergo when a real journey is undertaken some 20 years in the future. “The Mars-500 project is envisaged as an answer to the big question of whether a human being can realise a Martian flight—taking into account all the limitations and restrictions which are characteristic of this flight,” says the deputy director of the institute, Dr Viktor Baranov. The mock-up craft is about 550 cubic metres in size—about the size of a comfortable flat. It consists of interconnected metal canisters, four of which serve as the working and living quarters, while the fifth is a mock-up of the surface of Mars.

At the end of the onwards 250-day ‘journey’, three of the crew will spend time here decked in heavy spacesuits. The reward for the crew: $100,000 for participating in the mission, and perhaps more importantly as one of the crew said, “When the very first human steps on Mars, I will be able to say, ‘yeah, I helped do that’’’.