* Crew spent 520 days in mock spaceship in Moscow
* Mission tested human endurance for real Mars flight
(Adds quotes from space officials, U.S. psychologist)
By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW, Nov 8 The all-male crew of a mock
spaceship played a video action game to cool down when tensions
rose during a 17-month isolation study simulating a voyage to
In their cramped, windowless module at a Moscow research
facility, the earthbound pioneers split into teams -- three
Russians against two Europeans and one Chinese -- and put their
trust in Counter-Strike, said Russian Alexander Smoleyevsky, 32.
"We know that flies can turn into elephants in space so
whatever conflict arose, we tried to nip it in the bud," said
Rustamovich Sukhrob, 37, his blue jumpsuit hanging loosely on
his frame after months of food rations.
The six crew members, all of whom lost weight, looked weary
but relieved on Tuesday when speaking to reporters for the first
time. They had spent three days in quarantine since the end of
their mission on Nov. 4.
The $15 million Mars500 experiment aimed to answer one of
the big unknowns of deep-space travel: can people stay healthy
and sane while spending 520 days rocketing to the Red Planet and
back in a small spaceship?
The study volunteers were never weightless, but scientists
tried to make their isolation mimic the mental and physical
strain of a real flight to Mars as closely as possible.
They ate astronauts' rations, rarely showered, took blood
and urine samples and slept plastered with electrodes, all the
while being under constant video surveillance -- a touch that
earned the study comparisons to a reality TV show.
Each man was paid 3 million roubles ($98,300), Mars500
project director Boris Morukov told Reuters.
"I was shaky when I came out, I hadn't seen anybody else
other than my five friends for so long my heart was beating like
crazy, my legs were trembling... I was so excited,"
Italian-Colombian participant Diego Urbina told Reuters.
"It was very hard, I am not going to lie," he said. At his
lowest ebb he dreamt of daily life "on Earth" only to "suddenly
wake up in this dark chamber knowing you have so long to go".
French crewmate Romain Charles said he missed a "good
croissant" in the mornings. To break the monotony, he taught his
crewmates to play "Home Sweet Home" and "Rocket Man" on the
A previous 420-day experiment in 2000 ended in drunken
disaster when two participants got into a fistfight and a third
tried to forcibly kiss a female crew member.
But Mars500, the first fully-fledged simulation, is being
hailed as a success and brough a welcome flood of publicity for
the European Space Agency, struggling against waning interest in
space exploration among crisis-hit tax payers.
"We rarely finish these long-term experiments and we did it
as a team," said China's Yue Wang, the youngest crew member at
27, flashing a wide grin.
"We are family members, we built a very close, solid
relationship, We trust each other."
Morukov and others warned the crew may struggle to adapt to
normal life outside their 550-cubic-meter module.
"The hardest, riskiest part is over but the experiment is
not. We will continue to study the crew ... we are responsible
for the long-term consequences," said Anatoly Grigoryev, of the
Institute of Biomedical Problems, which ran the study.
Russian space officials have floated a plan to run a similar
study on the International Space Station, even though technology
is decades away from being able to power humans to Mars and land
them unharmed by radiation.
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Robert Woodward)