Mars500: mock mission to the red planet tests human limits of space travel

[Video Link]

Reporting for PBS NewsHour, my friend Miles O'Brien explores simulated missions to Mars—and in particular, the European Space Agency's Mars500 isolation experiment, in Russia. Five miles from Red Square, they are simulating many of the psychological aspects of a real mission to the red planet.

Three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese, all volunteers, stepped into a windowless, hermetically sealed mock spacecraft at the Institute of Biomedical Problems on June 3 of 2010, hoping not to break the seal for 520 days. That matches the six-month flight to and from Mars, plus a month to explore the surface.


To conduct an interview with the faux cosmonauts, Miles had to submit video questions and wait the actual amount of time it would take for real space-travelers to transmit video back, based on the parameters of this sim. The participants take the sim very seriously, and wouldn't break it even to do this rare interview.

Others interviewed for the piece include aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, an advocacy group that stages mock missions to the red planet on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic and in the Utah desert.

Mock Mission to Mars Tests Psychological Rigors of Long-Distance Space Travel (

[Image above, courtesy ESA: sim participants perform an extravehicular maneuver.]


  1. Did they simulate the radiation on mars, that even under heavy shielding (water, metal and concrete)would truncate an astronauts life down to something like five years?
    Are they thinking about what nation would consider that acceptable?

    For the short bus: mars will be a red planet for more than just the iron deposits…

    1. Why do you expect the radiation on mars to be higher than it would be in earth orbit above the upper reaches of the atmosphere? Humans can live in earth orbit for half a year at a time without dying of cancer a couple of years later. This would imply a huge source of radiation located on the martian surface. What elements are producing that extra radiation? Why hasn’t NASA published anything about such a remarkable chemical makeup of martian soil.

      It bothers me that they’re talking about only spending 30 days on Mars for a year-long trip. I mean, you could at least send a few unmanned vessels in advance with extra supplies so that, as long as you can access them on arrival, there’s the possibility of a longer stay. Or maybe the limit is set externally, by the need to time departure around the relative positions of earth and mars?

      1. Anthony, the 30 day restriction is caused by the orbital dynamics if one wants to run a classical mission design. But, varying the mission parameters allows longer stays (see my earlier comment about Mars Direct which is only the most prominent of the possible variations). Unfortunately, it has been almost 20 years since Mars Direct was proposed, and we still have people thinking in terms of bruteforce footprints-and-flagpole missions rather than clever mission profiles that actually let people stay a long time and help set things up for long-term habitation. Read Robert Zubrin’s “The Case for Mars” for more about the different issues and how we should go to Mars. (He’s a bit overly optimistic I think since Mars Direct is his baby but he’s basically correct.)

      2. The radiation on earth is low because of our atmosphere and (more importantly) our magnetic field. The magnetic field also protects the astronauts in Low earth orbit, but not on their way to Mars. And not on Mars since Mars does not have a strong magnetic field or a dense atmosphere, so astronauts will receive a higher radiation dose.

        I think the mission profile chosen here does not necessarily reflect the chosen mission to Mars, this study is more focussed on the psychological, physiological and microbial effects of long term isolation as would be seen on any proposed Mars mission, possibly with the exception of one way trips, in which case the circumstances would be even more extreme.

  2. If this is testing the psychological, not physiological – then surely the mere fact that the participants are aware that they’re sat in a room in Russia voids the entire experiment?

    Well, maybe not void, but extremely compromise?

    Would it not be more beneficial to just speak to some of the cosmonauts that have spent time on the space station, treating that as a vague benchmark? Either one is hardly going to be dead-accurate, but at least the cosmonaut plan doesn’t require this lengthy and slightly silly experiment.

    1. Agreed. These mock mars missions are the opposite of inspiring. Can we get an Elon Musk chaser please?

  3. Owen Garriott looks frighteningly like his son Richard (Lord British of Ultima fame). Is the beard a genetic feature?

  4. In Soviet Russia, Mission Mocks YOU!… (these comments will be preserved for future generations, right?)

  5. I’m a little confused – why 520 days? Six months + six months = one year, plus a month for ‘exploration’ would come to 395 or 396 days, wouldn’t it?

    1. Toby, the extra 125 days I think are to wait for the Earth/Mars alignment to be right for a 6 month transit.

    2. Your confused because the reporter was lazy and rounded “about 8 months” down to “about 6 months”.

  6. The main problem for most of us would be the internet lag.

    Beyond a certain point, if they’re still using IPV4, they’ill exceed the 8-bit TTL (which is at least in theory a count of seconds, though it tends to be a bit fast since each hop must decrement it by at least one).

    In IPV6, it’s replaced by “hop count”, so the problem disappears.

  7. Man, call me mature and everything, but it sure does look like the astronaut on the right in the bottom picture is taking a pee.

  8. “But when we opened the capsule, all we found was some scattered bones, hanks of hair, and one guy with a crazed look on his face and viscera hanging out of the corner of his mouth”…

  9. I was hoping they’d explain the red glasses. Is it like the Emerald City?

    But there was a side comment that NASA couldn’t take part in this as part of a nuclear proliferation law. Can anyone explain that?

    1. uhmm, not sure, but I think that proliferation law forbids that NASA (or any other American company or organization) shares any space-technology with a foreign country. A major problem really for any commercial space company at the moment. The red glasses are just to look cool in a picture.

      but beside that, didn’t BB know about this mission yet? I’m flabbergasted.

      1. I have a feeling the red/orange glasses were worn in the evening to regulate circadian rhythms. (Or were worn as part of an experiment in circadian rhythms.)

  10. I’m troubled by the part about 30 days on the Martian surface. This indicates that they are still thinking in very old-style Mars missions without taking advantage of either the orbital mechanics or the fact that you can make your fuel for return on Mars. The Mars Direct plan is cheaper, safer and allows much longer term exploration of the planet. It is more likely to actually help pave the way for colonization.

  11. I didn’t know they did EVAs. That’s hilarious and awesome,by the way i wish to your mission is gone successful, God bless you, Thank you very much.

  12. I like the wonderfully pessimistic name: Institute of Biomedical Problems. It’s right across the street from the Center for What Is Wrong With Physics, and funded by a grant from the Society for This Chemistry Shit Is All Fucked Up Anymore.

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