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Image: Marswalk
ESA
Simulation astronauts Diego Urbina and Alexander Smoleyevsky begin their first Marswalk in a room made up to look like a Martian landscape at the Mars500 experiment facility in Moscow. The flags of the European Space Agency, Russia and China are visible in the background at right.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/14/2011 1:37:28 PM ET 2011-02-14T18:37:28

The crew of a simulated international Mars mission took their first steps on an indoor Red Planet landscape on Monday, marking the halfway point in an ambitious 520-day isolation experiment to test the strains of interplanetary travel.

Two members of the six-man crew from Europe, China and Russia, who enlisted to be locked up in a mock spacecraft for a year and a half, held their first sortie after eight months of cramped living in the 1,720-square-foot (160-square-meter) module, parked in an institute on Moscow's outskirts.

Dubbed Mars500, the ambitious experiment, the first full-duration simulation of a manned flight to Mars, aims to test one of the biggest unknowns of deep space travel: the mental and physical strains of such a journey.

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The idea is to mimic the timescale of a manned Mars flight — 250 days for the actual flight, 30 days in Martian orbit and on the surface, and then 240 days for the long return back to Earth. During the whole time, the crew members are shuttling through imaginary space and have limited contact with the rest of the world.

Russia's mission control center, which monitors real-life spaceflights, broadcast live footage of Russian Alexander Smoleyevsky and Italian-Colombian Diego Urbina trudging awkwardly under the weight of their 70-pound (32-kilogram) spacesuits through a dark, sand-filled and rock-strewn room meant to imitate Mars' Gusev Crater. The area has been nicknamed "Gusev Base."

”Europe has for centuries explored Earth, led by people like Columbus and Magellan. Today, looking at this red landscape, I can feel how inspiring it will be to look through the eyes of the first human to step foot on Mars,” Urbina said at the beginning of Monday's Marswalk.

“I salute all the explorers of tomorrow and wish them godspeed.”

Two more Marswalks are scheduled on Friday and Feb. 22.

Scientists with the European Space Agency and Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems, who are running the ambitious experiment, acknowledged that the exercise cannot hope to test all the risks of a true crewed mission to Mars, such as solar radiation and weightlessness.

But space officials said the project was much more than a glorified "Big Brother" TV show.

"In the astronaut business we know that this is tough," Christer Fuglesang, a real-life astronaut and head of the ESA's life-science unit. "There is a real risk. You can stand being with someone you don't like for a couple of months, but for such a long mission the crew have to be very social people."

He warned that after the "high" of their mock landing on Mars, the long, return journey would be the toughest period of the whole experiment.

The Mars500 volunteers, aged between 28 and 38, include a member of a real-life space program and a civil engineer. But no women were chosen for the study, which has sparked a bit of gender controversy. Several years ago, a Russian expert on space medicine said the first crews to visit Mars should be all-male because "women are fragile and delicate creatures."

Only in the toilet are the crew members free from cameras and observation.

Videos posted on the Mars500 project's blog show the men eating a mushy frozen diet, plastered with electrodes during workouts and naps, playing video games on a Nintendo Wii and singing karaoke to break the monotony.

The crew members live on food rations like those of real-life space station astronauts. Showers come every 10 days, and contact with the outside is artificially delayed and disrupted to force the crew to fend for themselves.

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In an emergency drill, scientists cut off electricity to the module for over 24 hours to see how the crew would handle a crisis. Mission planners also introduce mock medical emergencies as a test.

"I am really convinced that the unique experience, which the Mars500 group continues to return to us... will be a strong asset for the future undertakings of man in its ambition to fly to the Red Planet," said Martin Zell, who heads up the ESA scientific program on the International Space Station.

The ESA, Russia's space agency and NASA have separately sketched dates for a human flight to Mars in around 30 years.

This report includes information from Reuters and msnbc.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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