Touring where the Mars-500 “astronauts” as if a Red Planet trip freelance journalist Elizabeth Howell walks on “Mars” at the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

(Elizabeth Howell/

It is a quiet morning on Mars, as I walk carefully on the dusty ground, watching my step so I don’t trip on one of the rocks under your feet. My colleagues to carefully examine my movements, so that they can take pictures to relay back to fans after my mission.

“Mars” of course it is only a simulation — but it really feels to stand in this small room at the Moscow Institute for Biomedical Problems, literally in the footsteps of the three Mars-500 crews that stayed here between 2007 and 2011. The missions were 15 days, 105-days and 520 days, with the last mission of the simulation of the whole trip between the Earth and Mars.

The last mission was six international crew members who did a simulated “landing” on the Red Planet in February 2011, including three Marswalks in this room. The experiment would help in the development of procedures, so that the astronauts can adapt to the Red Planet after months of voyaging in microgravity, press secretary Oleg Voloshin told me that on June 1, and gives me a tour. He spoke a little English, but mostly spoke in Russian through an interpreter. [Mars500: Photos From Russia’s Mock Mars Mission]

Mars-500 may be the most well-known of the institute of the missions, but it is certainly not the only one. The institute is known for conducting long-term simulations of a stay in the room with the help of both cosmonauts and the ordinary people. Sometimes the participants in the simulations in this habitat, and sometimes they are in bed-rest studies to simulate the medical problems of the space. While no simulation is perfect, the scientists are setting goals to better understand aspects of real spaceflight.

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Rising to Sirius

The next set of missions, called Sirius, will examine how people behave in microgravity, Voloshin said. Today he is decked out in a T-shirt finished with cosmonauts in different positions — and even a floating cat in a space suit. His enthusiasm for the program comes through experience: Voloshin participated in the two bed-rest studies that lasted a total of six days between them, he told me proudly.

The institute sees Sirius as a continuation of the Mars-500, but this time it will focus on one of the more difficult phases of the mission — interplanetary space travel. This is a time in which the participants need to work productively on the spacecraft for months in a small space, without the benefit of going “outside” as they can on Mars. Another big difference is that Sirius is a function of mixed-gender crews, which is rare in these types of studies, Voloshin said. [Why Colonize Mars? Sci-Fi Writers Weigh In]

On the scale of closed installations, the one that is based Mars-500 is quite large and includes several modules, in a room probably about the size of a college basketball gymnasium. Sirius will have up to five modules here, depending on the length of the mission is carried out.

The first phase of the mission (which took place in 2017) had six crew members (three men, three women), two modules for 17 days. It was led by Serov, Mark Vyacheslavovich, a 45-year-old engineer whose name sounds like a cosmonaut; he is a planner of the Moscow mission control chief operational control group, and the deputy director of advanced controlled complexes for rocket manufacturer RSC-Energia’s Spaceflight Center.

In little more than two weeks, the crew performed a dizzying series of experiments in the psychology, physiology, human factors (such as making sure that the human body is the work with the spacecraft and systems), medicines and much more. And that is just one example of the experiments. Voloshin highlighted a few members of the crew will practice berths with a Canadarm simulator; their movements are tracked by sensors to see which modules they prefer to use; and virtual reality will be used for the monitoring of their mental health and to help them to drive Mars-type rovers on the simulated surface. The next phase of Sirius, is expected in early 2019.




Confirmed partners in Sirius from NASA, the German space agency (DLR) and the French space agency (CNES), with some interest from Japan and Italy, Voloshin said. He noted that he is hopeful that the participation will expand in the foreseeable future. “With the difficult situation in the world, Sirius might be a way to scientists from different countries together,” he said through the interpreter. [Touring Baikonur: The City Behind the Famous baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan]

Bed-rest studies and beyond

The preparation for Mars also contains a complex series of experiments from the area of the high-profile simulations. Out of the many experiments conducted on the International Space Station, scientists all over the world to perform bed-rest studies to better understand how people’s bodies react to prolonged microgravity. At the institute, most of these people are ordinary people — not cosmonauts. I noticed Voloshin that it must be because the cosmonauts are very busy training for the real spaceflight. “Ordinary people are also cheaper,” he said in English with a smile.

Voloshin took the interpreter and me in another building, where the so-called “dry” immersion studies were carried out. In the small room, there are three tanks for bed-rest patients. Instead of lying on the actual beds where the pressure of the substance can affect the body’s fluid shift and change of the experiment — the participants are bath-size of the tanks of the water, supported only by an insulating blanket. They are for the most part of the day; if they are required for the use of a toilet, a well-trained team sends them to a mobile bed on wheels to a nearby bathroom.

When people participate in these studies for a few days or weeks, we are seeing some of the effects that we in the aerospace, Voloshin explained. Some of them are known, such as the shrinking of muscles, and moisture redistribution. But there are still several mysteries. An experiment looks at the reason why astronauts often get pain in the back in the space. Another — that Voloshin participated in — tried with the help of electrical stimulation for the muscles to counteract the weakness that develops.

I can’t imagine lying on one of these beds for more than a few hours, staring at the white ceiling, but Voloshin said: humans have the experiments carried out here for as long as 56 days. The last one in September for three weeks. And occasionally, the work in this room can be used to help people with certain medical conditions.

For example, institute researchers developed a bodysuit or a Regent, which opposes the movement of the muscles and helps to strengthen them. It has been used for patients with an ischaemic stroke — when the blood to the brain is blocked by a blood clot — and the disease of Parkinson’s, according to a brochure I received from the institute. Institute researchers also created a device to stimulate the foot support in bed patients with motor disorders, among several other applications.

If Voloshin ended my tour, he apologized, saying that in 90 minutes he can show me only a fraction of the work of the institute is to prepare for Mars. Some of her other work consists of helping to the recovery of the astronauts to come back from the International Space Station, the advantage of the exercise equipment that cosmonauts use in space to stay healthy, and doing experiments in space biology, including the sending of satellites in the air with living organisms, to better understand how micro-organisms behave in space.

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