A group of American and Russian volunteers were sealed this week in Moscow at the beginning of a four-month isolation experiment designed to simulate a mission to the moon.
The mixed women's group began their flight on Tuesday in a brown brick building on the outskirts of the city center in a Soviet-era facility run by the Moscow Institute for Biomedical Problems.
There they will be confined to a collection of narrow tube constructions in a hangar-like hall in the institute for 120 days. The modules are hermetically sealed, meaning they have their own atmosphere, and the crew will not leave or see other people for the duration of the mission.
The simulation, called SIRIUS-1
A few months ago, Reinhold Povilaitis sold his apartment in Arizona and stored his things before the experiment in Moscow. Povilaitis, 30, a researcher at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera of Arizona State University, is looking for possible landing sites for future lunar missions.
He will live in close proximity with his five other crewmates, another American and four Russians.
"I'm not worried about that – I thrive in such environments, I'm looking forward to it," said Povilaitis. "My personal reason for this is that I can drive human spaceflight as far as possible."
His home in the coming months is known as a ground-based experiment complex or NEK. The plant has been in operation since the 1960s, when it was specially built for such simulations. Although some are from the 1970s, the elements used in this experiment have been refurbished.
The modules are connected by metal tunnels, which must be sealed through hatches modeled on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The living rooms are about 40 square meters in size – a long corridor with submarine-like cabins with a tiny desk, a wardrobe and a bed. A kitchen area is only equipped with a microwave and hot water. A common area for relaxing offers some bean bags and a large TV.
Povilaitis and Anastiasia Stepanova, his Russian teammate, were not impressed with the limited space.
"It's bigger than my apartment that I left," Povilaitis said.
The mission of the team is multi-level. First, they must complete the 10-day flight to the Moon, where they simulate docking at an orbital station. Two of them then leave the living modules and land on the "surface" of the Moon – another closed area where the two researchers will wear virtual reality glasses as they collect samples and repair a damaged lunar rover. As the progress progresses, new modules are opened for the crew.
Now sealed inside, the team receives food and supplies through an airlock. Intelligent lighting mimics the daylight on Earth and becomes darker and brighter when it follows sunrise and sunset. The living areas are completely clad in light wood, an environment that is quieter for crews than the metal of a spacecraft.
"It looks like a sauna," laughed Stepanova, who is also a junior scientist at the institute.
The crew's contact with the outside world will be limited to communicating with "mission control." and sending e-mails to their loved ones through the project's psychologists. To talk, the volunteers can watch movies and listen to music as well as move around on running machines.
All common areas are covered by several dome-shaped cameras that record the crew's interactions with each other. There is some privacy – the cameras are not in the sleeping cabins, toilets or showers and only sound on certain days.
Igor Kofman, who represents NASA's human research program in Russia and oversees the project, said scientists would look at how isolation affects physical and mental performance.
The Moscow experiment is one of several isolation simulations running around the world as countries are seriously looking for flights to the Moon and Mars.
NASA is leading an international project to develop plans for the so-called Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway, a space station orbiting the moon and serving as a launch site for space flights.
Meanwhile, the Russian Space Agency has set itself the goal of landing cosmonauts on the moon in the mid-2020s and creating a permanent base there by 2040 – an ambitious target many experts are calling into question given the current troubled state Russia's possible space industry.
One of the unusual elements of the current experiment is the amount of technical simulation involved. The crew must, among other things, create and maintain supply vessels, which means that if they do not connect the supply shipments, they will be given too little food.
"Essentially this is the beginning, the first step on the way to technical preparation of a lunar program," said former cosmonaut Yevgeny Tarelkin who is the commander of the crew. "And not just for a flight, but also for the conquest of the moon."
The current experiment is far from the longest experiment in the NEK. The Mars 500 mission, organized by Russia, China and the European Space Agency between 2007 and 2011, lasted 250 days.
Stepanova and Povilaitis have previously participated in space-isolation experiments. Two years ago, Povilaitis participated in NASA's Human Exploration Research Analog or HERA program, a 45-day simulation at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. His team was only two weeks before Hurricane Harvey forced her to evacuate.
This experience led him to seize the opportunity to participate in the Moscow experiment when it came up.
"It will never feel like a prison when your mind is in the right place," said Povilaitis. "You just have to be prepared for what works well. At least speak for me, you can go unlimited. Four months do not seem to be too long for me. "