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17 months going nowhere?

To reflect on the Russian simulated Mars mission and how to live together in groups.

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 3/4

Aims

To reflect on the Russian simulated Mars mission and how to live together in groups.

Preparation and materials

Assembly

  1. Ask the students what they think space scientists would have to consider when planning a trip to the planet Mars, which might take astronauts (or cosmonauts!) away from Earth for a year and a half or more.

    Value all responses and help the students to consider the provision of oxygen to breathe, food and water, coping with weightlessness and getting enough exercise. There are also the technical aspects to think about such as designing and building a powerful rocket and spacecraft with advanced computer systems and accurate navigation.
  2. Talk about the simulated Mars mission that ended on Friday, 4 November. Draw out some key facts:

    The Mars500 project put six men in a simulated spacecraft in a hangar in Moscow.

    It was an international project with three Russians, two other Europeans and one Chinese crew member.

    The aim was to find out how they would cope on a long-duration spaceflight.  

    It lasted for 520 days – more than 17 months.

    They were sealed into their pretend spacecraft, a collection of steel tubes with no windows, in June 2010.

    Although they were not weightless during the flight and were never really in danger, the planners tried to make the mission as realistic as possible.

    As they flew away from Earth on their imaginary journey, a time delay was built into their radio communications with the mission controllers – supposedly millions of miles away but actually in the same building! The delay could be as much as 25 minutes for a question to be asked and the answer to be received. (You might mention that this is better than some UK call centres!)

    They even experienced a pretend landing, with three of the men putting on spacesuits and working on a simulated Martian landscape.
  3. The scientists studying the men say they have learned a great deal about stress levels, physical fitness, sleep, moods and physical well-being. They assessed the crew’s mental state, and Dr Martin Zell from the European Space Agency said, ‘I can only praise the crew for their courage and their great spirit. They were a brilliant team – they really will finish as a crew and not six individuals.’
  4. Point out that this issue of being a team was one of the most important aspects of the whole experiment. The Russian space programme has developed great expertise in the effects of long space flights, and they’ve learned that keeping the crew talking to each other, being helpful and friendly is absolutely vital.

    On leaving the simulated spacecraft, team members told reporters that one of the reasons the experiment was successful was because they had become a very close-knit team.

    French team member Cyrille Fournier said the group was dynamic, respectful and polite. He added: “We avoided really critical tensions.”

    This friendship theme was stressed by each crew member as a crucial factor in helping them to survive.

    It seems that, however far we travel, we take our human nature with us, and the need to look after ourselves and care for our fellow human beings is a vital part of human life on Earth and in space.

Time for reflection

Our families,
our friendship groups,
our school classes,
our school,
our society:
all are like a spaceship where people need to work together and look out for one another.

If each crew is going to survive and thrive, it has to look to the needs of the whole group and the success of the mission, whether that’s growing as a family, being a close-knit friendship group, being a successful school class, a functioning society – or a group of astronauts on the way to Mars!

Music

Download suitable music such as ‘Space oddity’ by David Bowie or ‘Oxygene’ by Jean-Michel Jarre

Publication date: November 2011   (Vol.13 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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