What 17 Months in Isolation Looks Like (On a Mars Mission)

For 520 days, six men lived together in a simulated mission to Mars. Here’s what their home away from home looked like.

The crew celebrates New Year's. Credit: IBMP
The crew celebrates New Year’s. Credit: IBMP

How might you cope if you had to spend 17 months indoors, sans sun, fresh air, or loved ones? Would you catch up on Tolstoy? Fight boredom with Wii? Make like Rip Van Winkle and snore away the time? A year ago this past November, six intrepid men emerged from just such a scenario. They were volunteer crewmembers in Mars 500, a simulated space mission designed to investigate the psychological and physical toll that a journey to the Red Planet might take. (A new study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals insight into the team’s circadian rhythms during the journey.)

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For 520 days, the voyagers retreated from the outside world and into a cozy structure based at Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems, which, along with the European Space Agency, oversaw the project. Spanning 719 cubic yards, their home away from home ensconced familiar quarters such as a living room, kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, even a gym. Meanwhile, an external module, accessible by a tunnel, led to a building mimicking Martian terrain. (Click here for a virtual tour.)

During their expedition, the crew—six men from various nations—participated in a number of experiments that explored, for instance, the members’ sleep cycles. About halfway through the mission, the crew also mock-landed on the fourth rock from the sun, and three members poked around the faux Martian surface in spacesuits.

The pioneers finally emerged from their insular world on November 4, 2011, having set a record for their time spent in isolation. So what kind of impression did the adventure leave? Recalling a conversation with Buzz Aldrin about the mission, crewmember Diego Urbina recently tweeted, “Now I know I could not go to Mars and stay forever.” How about you? Would you be up for the challenge?

*This post was amended on January 11, 2013, around 11 p.m. An earlier version stated that the crew mock-landed on the ‘”third rock from the sun,” referring to simulated Martian terrain. Mars is the “fourth rock.” 

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About Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is a freelance science journalist and the former managing editor of online content for Science Friday.