- Associated Press - Friday, November 4, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) - It seemed more like a bizarre reality TV show than high-tech international space travel experiment: Six men lived in cramped, windowless compartments for more than 17 months to simulate a mission to Mars.

When they emerged from their claustrophobic capsules Friday in western Moscow, the researchers in blue jumpsuits looked haggard but were all smiles _ dreaming of lying in the sun at the beach, taking long strolls and driving fast cars.

Organizers said the 520-day experiment was the longest mock space mission ever, measuring human responses to the confinement, stress and fatigue of a round trip to Mars _ minus the weightlessness, of course. They describe it as a vital part of preparations for a future mission to the Red Planet, even though it may be decades away because of huge costs and daunting technological challenges.

The facility at Moscow’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems, Russia’s premier space medicine center, included living compartments the size of a bus, connected with several other similarly sized modules for experiments and exercise.

There have been other confinement experiments, including Biosphere 2, a giant glass-and-steel facility in Arizona in the 1990s that housed four men and four women in self-sustaining two-year isolation. That project was dogged by controversy and technical problems.

Scientists who organized the mock Mars mission said it differed from the other experiments by relying on the latest achievements in space medicine and human biology.

Emerging from their isolation, the crew of three Russians, one Frenchman, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese carefully descended a metal ladder to a greeting from crowd of officials and journalists Friday.

“The international crew has completed the 520-day experiment,” team leader Alexey Sitev told Russian space officials. “The mission is accomplished. The crew is in good health and is ready for new missions.”

Organizers said each crew member will be paid about $100,000, except for the Chinese researcher, whose compensation hasn’t been revealed by officials from his country.

The crew will spend three days in quarantine before holding a news conference. They spoke to relatives and friends from behind a glass panel to minimize the risk of infection.

Sitev, who led the team into the quarters in June 2010 _ just a few weeks after getting married _ said he dreams of going to the beach.

“I want to go somewhere to the warm sea as we have missed two summers here,” he said in remarks carried by RIA Novosti news agency shortly before wrapping up the mission. “My thoughts are drifting toward swimming at sea and basking on warm sand.”

His Italian-Colombian crewmate Diego Urbina told RIA Novosti that he would also like to have a vacation in the Caribbean and would spend his earnings on a sports car and a pilot training course.

Sukhrob Kamolov, the Russian mission doctor, said he thought the $100,000 was a lot of money when they went in, but after a year and a half in the confined space, it didn’t sound so big.

During the simulation, the crew members were under constant surveillance by scientists and communicated with their families and space officials via the Internet, which was delayed and occasionally disrupted intentionally to imitate the effects of space travel. They showered only several times per month _ once every 10 days or so _ pretending to conserve water. Their food was similar to what is on the International Space Station.

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