MOSCOW Six European men embarked on a 105-day simulated trip to Mars at a Russian space institute on Tuesday to test how humans would cope with the long isolation.
The volunteer crew of four Russians, one German and a Frenchman smiled and waved to cameras before sealing themselves in the maze of cramped compartments in an imitation spaceship.
A padlock was clamped on the giant metal hatch of the warren, the focus of a project which space officials said was a small step toward eventually sending people to Mars.
"I believe this team should have no psychological problems," Russian crew commander Sergei Ryazansky told a news conference at Moscow's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems.
"I also want this mission to be at least a little bit like a real space flight, which all of us are craving," said the 34-year-old scientist, who is a trained cosmonaut.
Reaching Mars on current space ships would take at least 500 days and would subject astronauts to massive doses of radiation. Russian officials say the earliest such flight could be expected in 2030.
The cost of such a voyage would be astronomical and a spaceship three times the size of the International Space Station (ISS) would be needed if current technologies were used, said Alexei Krasnov, head of piloted programs at the Russian space agency Roscommon.
The experiment, which is jointly run by Roskosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA), is aimed at testing how humans deal with the psychological and physical effects of long periods in closed quarters.
"I feel like I am taking part in a world soccer championship and I am just dying to go out into the pitch," German Oliver Knickel told reporters. Knickel is a 28-year-old military engineer who in 2002 was on a NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The crew members will be closely monitored to assess the impact of isolation on stress levels, hormone regulation and sleep. A much longer, 520-day simulated experiment is scheduled to start later this year as part of the Mars-500 project.
"We can say this triple exploration -- the International Space Station, the Moon and finally Mars -- is really our space challenge of the 21st century," said Martin Zell, head of the ISS Utilisation Department at the ESA.
The current crew will not be subject to weightlessness or exposed to radiation during its stint due to end on July 14. It is neither the first nor the longest isolation experiment conducted at the Moscow institute.
Ryazansky said the experiment was different because it would focus on the problems that could occur on a Mars mission.
The crew will face specially designed emergencies and problems such as delays of up to 20 minutes in communication with flight control as the radio signal travels the enormous distance to Earth and back.
"The social aspect should be part of everyday work," said Frenchman Cyrille Fournier, 40-year-old captain of an Air France Airbus A320. "I believe I will add my competence and qualities to make the atmosphere the best possible."
Some crew members were already deciding what they would do when they come out of the experiment. Fournier said he would get married.
"I plan to take my sweetheart to the sea," said Russian flight engineer Oleg Artemyev. "Then I will attend Cyrille's wedding, if we are still on speaking terms," he said with a smile.
(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Jonathan Wright)