[17. ágúst 2011]
Romain Charles, a 31-year-old engineer and quality manager at a firm in Saint-Malo, a coastal town in western France, is the only Frenchman selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to join the international crew of six (three Russians, one Chinese and one colleague who is half Italian and half Colombian) taking part in the Mars 500 mission organised by the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP), working in conjunction with the ESA. The aim is to simulate a 520-day mission to the red planet, principally to study the consequences of confinement on the psychology and behaviour of the crew members but also any medical repercussions on the human body.
Supplies of fresh vegetables
The simulators have been designed to be as realistic as possible. The main part of the isolation facility is made up of three modules: a living space in which each crew member has a 3 sq m bedroom – except for the mission commander, who has 4.5 sq m – a kitchen, a games room and a control centre which would have been the envy of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock on the USS Enterprise. A 250 sq m module is used for storing food and water and includes two greenhouses for producing fresh vegetables and a gym to counter the effects of the lack of mobility resulting from the crew’s enforced confinement.
Another module is reserved for medical experiments. And finally, to recreate “life on Mars”, there is a 20 sq m module which opens out into an area of 100 sq m which simulates the Martian environment (-60°, no oxygen and a landscape of dunes), which was home to three of the crew members for a month in early February.
Once they had gathered up a collection of sand and rocks put there for the purpose, the “Marsonauts” took advantage of an unexpected comfort: two armchairs, ready and waiting for them at the far end of the landscape, to help take the weight of their space suits, which would be easier to bear on Mars, where gravity is a third that of the Earth!
Romain Charles was not one of the lucky crew members to take part in that simulation. As one of the team of three tasked with maintaining the main module and ensuring it continued to function correctly, he remained in virtual orbit, concentrating on his vital mission of ensuring a safe “return” under optimal conditions. Our representative in this dream of a Martian conquest nevertheless has high hopes of being selected for a real mission one day. “I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment,” he admits.
Everyone on board gets along pretty well. Although there have been a few disagreements, none has led to real argument, proving that the psychological tests preceding the selection of applicants were rigorously carried out. The enthusiasm the experiment has generated outside the scientific community comes as no surprise to Romain Charles, the reluctant star of this episode of a “space reality show” from which no-one is sent home in a blaze of publicity. The Mars 500 website has been deluged with questions. Ever-conscious of getting the details right, the organisers have even introduced a 20-minute delay to reflect the time it would actually take for a message to travel from Earth to Mars. And the same again for the response.
A Socratic adventure
The Mars 500 pioneers continue to accept their isolation patiently until their return to sunshine and fresh air in early November 2011. There is no shortage of work to do, and their leisure time is split between sport, reading and films to keep the atmosphere realistic. One of the movies on board is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, which Romain Charles had not previously seen in the light of his own experience: “When we watch this kind of film,” he writes in his on-board diary, “we are much more aware of every detail. I really sympathised with the solitude and monotony that the main characters were experiencing!” An internal adventure with Socratic overtones – “Know yourself” – involves s a journey in itself.
Will we go to Mars one day?
The Europeans and Americans are working on it. An initial timetable has been announced, with the setting up of embryonic living facilities scheduled to begin in 2028, ready to welcome their first human crew around 2031. Will the economic and financial crisis mark the end of this grandiose dream? CBS News recently published an opinion poll suggesting that 51% of people in the United States supported the plans (up three points compared with 2004 but down seven points on 1999). Champions of the project believe that the sample selected (994 respondents) makes this result unreliable.
Bruno Le Marcis
© European Space Agency