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Metal modules will test man's Mars ambitions

AN international team of researchers entered a metal module in northern Moscow yesterday to spend three months in windowless isolation intended to simulate the stress and fatigue of a space flight to Mars.

While a real mission to Mars could be at least 20 years away, Russian and European space officials say the experiment will help make it closer. The all-male crew of four Russians, a German and a Frenchman were carefully selected by Russian and European Space Agency experts from 6,000 volunteers, officials said.

A similar experiment in 1999-2000 at the same Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems ended in scandal: a Canadian woman complained of being forcibly kissed by a Russian team captain and said that two Russian crew members had a fist fight that left blood splattered on the walls. Russian officials downplayed the incidents, attributing it to cultural gap and stress.

Oliver Knickel, 28, of Germany, Cyrille Fournier, 40, of France and their four Russian colleagues looked relaxed during yesterday's final "preflight" news conference, joking and exchanging friendly glances.

"I'm very happy to have such a crew," said team captain Sergei Ryazansky, who has undergone training for a real space mission. "There mustn't be psychological problems in this crew. We even may create a musical band."

Fournier, a commercial pilot, said he plans to get married soon after the 105-day experiment ends and had already invited his crewmates to attend.

Each crew member will have his own cabin in a structure consisting of several metal modules. A living module is about the same length as a railway car, its interiors paneled in wood according to ex-Soviet style of the 1970s, when the structure was built. Common facilities include a gym and a small garden, and the modules are equipped with the European and Russian equipment for biomedical research.

While there will be no imitation of weightlessness, the crew will eat space rations and use toilets and other facilities resembling those on a space station.

Their only link to the outside world will be with mission control.


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