MOSCOW — Pale but smiling, an international crew of researchers on Friday walked out of a set of windowless modules after a grueling 520-day simulation of a flight to Mars.
The all-male crew of three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese citizen slowly emerged from the western Moscow facility, which simulated the confinement, stress and fatigue of interplanetary travel — minus the weightlessness.
Dressed in blue track suits emblazoned with the mission emblem, they carefully walked down a metal ladder to a greeting crowd of officials and journalists.
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"The crew has completed the experiment," team leader Alexey Sitev reported to Russian space officials. "The mission is accomplished, the crew is in good health and is ready for new missions."
Psychologists said long confinement put the team members under stress as they grew increasingly tired of each other's company. They said that psychological conditions can even be more challenging on a mock mission than a real flight because the crew won't experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel.
The crew showed signs of fatigue but no signs of stress as they walked to microphones to speak before cameras. "We hope that we can help in designing the future missions to Mars," Frenchman Romain Charles said with a smile.
What advice would he give real Marsonauts to survive the monotony? "Always stay busy," Charles said, and "don't forget your e-book reader!"
His Italian-Colombian crewmate Diego Urbina said the crew felt proud to achieve the longest-ever imitation of space flight, so that "humankind can one day greet a new dawn on the surface of distant but reachable planet."
Canned food for 520 days
During the $15 million experiment, the crew communicated with the organizers and their families via the Internet, which was delayed and occasionally disrupted to imitate the effects of space travel. They ate canned food similar to that offered on the International Space Station.
Each crew member will be paid about $100,000 — except for the Chinese researcher, whose reward hasn't been revealed by Chinese officials.
The men will spend the next few days undergoing medical checkups. There's a chance that the noise and activity of returning to life outside their metal-walled habitat may come as a shock, organizers of the experiment at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems said.
"Time seems to have flown by since we closed the hatch last year. But how time really felt to the crew we'll soon know. Probably we'll have a very big difference of opinion," said the head of the institute, Igor Ushakov.
Massive challenges ahead
A real flight to Mars is decades away because of huge costs and massive technological challenges, particularly the task of creating a compact and relatively lightweight shield that will protect the crew from deadly space radiation.
NASA is aiming for a nearby asteroid around 2025 and then on to Mars in the 2030s.
Vitaly Davydov, a deputy head of the Russian space agency, said the experiment completed Friday will help pave the way for a real Mars mission. He added that it's not expected until the mid-2030s and should be done in close international cooperation.
More about Mars:
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- NASA's next Mars rover hoisted onto rocket
- Russian probe set for trip to Martian moon
- More Red Planet info and pictures
This report includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com.
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