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Published: Monday, 6/14/2010

Space test

Somewhere in Moscow, six scientists are experiencing the tedium of interstellar space travel, without the danger and euphoria that go with it.

The international scientists - three Russians, a Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian, and a Chinese researcher, all male - will live, exercise, and work together during a simulated 520-day trip to Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor.

Although it lacks the adrenaline and zero gravity of the Apollo missions of a generation ago, the faux journey to Mars will yield much data about the psychology and sociology of men engaged in long-distance space travel.

Dubbed Mars-500 by the Russian, Chinese, and European space agencies, the experiment in human endurance will be monitored closely. The researchers will keep in touch with mission planners via the Internet, just as they would during actual travel. They will shower once a week, eat canned food, and monitor their vital signs.

The mission planners will look for indications of stress among the researchers. A 520-day mission to Mars would be far longer than humans have ever spent in space, so there are many unknowns about how the species will hold up. The experiment will also put the scientists through the delicate dance of simulating a landing on the Martian surface.

Although American astronauts aren't involved in the effort, the U.S. space program will benefit from the data derived from it. President Obama wants to have a manned flight to Mars in the 2030s.

The road to Mars will be partially paved by 520 days spent in windowless steel capsules on Earth. If the researchers emerge unscathed and mentally whole from their experiment, it will be one more great step for mankind.

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