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Journey to Mars

January 27, 2010

It's a long way to Mars. And it's not just the miles -- it's the months: about eight of them for a one-way trip. That's fine for a robotic spacecraft -- it just has to stand up to the cold, the radiation, and the vacuum of space. But when people head to Mars, they'll also have to contend with boredom, isolation, and some cramped quarters. And they'll have to do it twice -- going out and coming back.

A team of Russian and European volunteers is supposed to give it a go later this year. Not the traveling part -- just the boredom, isolation, and cramped quarters. They'll be sealed inside a test center in Moscow for about a year and a half -- enough time for a round-trip to Mars, with a month added in for the time that real astronauts would spend at the planet.

The Russian and European space agencies ran a shorter test last year -- about three and a half months. For this mission, six volunteers will live and work in quarters that are as close to a space environment as engineers can provide. They'll have small working and living areas, and tiny capsules for sleeping quarters. Scientists will keep an eye on them to see how they react to the cozy conditions.

The test won't simulate all the hazards of a real trip to Mars -- no weightlessness, radiation, or bitter cold. And if something goes wrong, they can always just open the door and walk out -- a luxury that crewmembers won't have on the long, long trip to Mars.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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