Cosmic Research: A Trip to Mars -- Without Leaving Russia

By in Moscow

A simulated mission to Mars is drawing to a close in Moscow after 520 days. The test astronauts will be weak and pale, but an international team of researchers has learned a number of vital medical lessons. Now German scientists hope to start a more modern test of manned space flight near Cologne.

Photo Gallery: Mission to Mars Photos
DLR / ESA

Diego Urbina, a 26-year-old Italian with Colombian roots, and five other human guinea pigs will climb out of their mock Russian spaceship on Friday in Moscow. When they do -- rather pale after almost one and a half years without sunlight -- one of the longest isolation experiments in the world will be over. Urbina and his colleagues have simulated a mission to Mars and back. Cut off from the outside world, the crew received radio messages from ground control. Sometimes the messages arrived after a 20-minute delay, just as if their spaceship were floating through space, millions of miles away.

Of course, the six pseudo-astronauts never really left the planet. But when they emerge on Friday at the Moscow-based Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP), the safety measures will imitate measures needed for a real mission to Mars. Only hand-picked television crews from Russia, Western Europe and China will be allowed to film the end of the experiment. Reporters even had to submit a medical certificate of good health, because the test subjects' immune systems are thought to be so weakened that they won't even withstand the pathogens of an otherwise harmless cold.

Health Dividends on Earth

Just under 17 months ago, researchers closed the hatch of the earth-bound Mars module, leaving three men from Russia -- as well as one each from France, Italy and China -- inside. The crew wasn't exposed to weightlessness or dangerous cosmic radiation, so the mission will produce only modest findings when it comes to long-term space missions. But medical scientists in Germany are still excited.

Their curiosity mainly involves efforts to combat terrestrial afflictions. "For example," says Jens Titze, a medical researcher at the University of Erlangen in Bavaria, "for the first time in a long-term study, we were able to establish that consuming too much salt stimulates high blood pressure." Titze gradually reduced the daily salt ration provided to Urbina and his colleagues in the Mars module and followed how their blood pressure dropped in parallel.

Titze hopes that having less salt in their diets will extend the lives of many thousands of people with high blood pressure. "In the United States," he says, "a projected 50,000 heart attacks could be prevented each year, saving the US health-care system $10 billion to $24 billion."

Researchers at Berlin's Charité Hospital also tested a new temperature sensor. The device, attached to the forehead, aims to monitor patients who have recently undergone surgery, to recognize dangerous fevers early on. "Until now, that was always done with rectal probes," explains Hanns-Christian Gunga, a specialist in space medicine. "It wasn't particularly popular."

Such space research makes it possible to keep young, extremely fit test subjects essentially in a cage. The scientists don't mind. "Otherwise," Titze says, "we only observe sick people."

Germans are planning the next space-travel coup -- this time in Porz, a neighborhood of Cologne, instead of Moscow. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is building a test facility like no other in the world. Test subjects selected according to criteria similar to those in Russia will be closed off from the outside world before long, to simulate space flight.

The €30 million ($41 million) project is called "envihab." It consists of five interlinked modules covering approximately 3,500 square meters (38,000 square feet). It even makes a human centrifuge available to researchers.

The project should launch in two years. Test subjects in Cologne will spend 60 days in a horizontal position as they simulate a space flight to an asteroid as part of a mission dubbed "Osteogeneration." Researchers hope to learn more about why bones atrophy as people age.

With such projects, the facility has attracted interest from potential partners that wouldn't otherwise be suspected of harboring cosmic ambitions. The health insurance company Barmer GEK, and the Asklepios hospital group, want to collaborate with the DLR.

'Something Unexpected'

German scientists are also pleased that they will no longer have to rely on the now somewhat antiquated "Mars500" module in Moscow. "With our health-related research," Titze explains, "we had a focus that didn't quite fit with our Russian partners."

The corruption and arbitrary state power they confronted in Russia also bothered the Germans. Russian customs officials, for example, delayed the processing of a shipment of German cooling devices by five months. The process was only set back on track after the German ambassador intervened. "If our truck full of research instruments is stuck on the border for 10 days in the Russian winter," Titze complains, "it isn't all that conducive to the reliability of our planning."

In contrast, after 520 strictly regimented days, 1,000 urine samples and 1,500 ready-made meals, test subject Diego Urbina can hardly wait to finally get out from under the thumb of the researchers in Moscow. "The thing I missed the most," the Italian says, "was simply having something unexpected happen."

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