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An unusual experiment begins today in Moscow. Six men will be sealed inside a fake spaceship for 520 days. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports the goal is to simulate a manned mission to Mars.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: This fake mission to Mars has an international crew: Two men from Europe, one from China and three from Russia. They'll be living inside a few bus-sized modules at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems.

Researcher Nick Kanas has visited. He says the inside of this mock spaceship does not look futuristic. It's more rustic, with wood paneling.

Dr. NICK KANAS (Psychiatrist, University of California, San Francisco): I was a little bit surprised when I went inside. But it's actually kind of nice.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Would you want to live there for over a year?

Dr. KANAS: Probably not.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kanas is a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco. And he's worked on a pilot study leading up to this new Mars simulation.

Dr. KANAS: This is a long time, 500 days. And so we'll get a feeling of what, if anything, the extra amount of time being isolated and confined with the same group of people will do to you.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's important, because a real roundtrip mission to Mars would take two and a half years. The crew would be too far away to enjoy things that cheer up space station astronauts. Kanas says there'd be no resupply ships, so no fresh food or surprise presents. And forget about talking to Mission Control in real time.

Dr. KANAS: On Mars, you ask a question, you've got to wait a half an hour or longer to get the answer.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This new study will include a 20-minute time delay for communications with the outside world, along with endless astronaut food, the grind of exercise and maintenance work, plus science experiments.

And there'll be fake emergencies. But the crew won't feel the psychological pressure of real danger.

Christian Otto has worked with NASA to study how people are affected by sensory deprivation and social isolation. He's also done a couple of yearlong trips to Antarctica.

Dr. CHRISTIAN OTTO (NASA): When I was the physician at South Pole Station and it's winter and there's no chance for rescue, you know the rest of your crewmates and yourself are going to have to solve any problem that comes up.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's not true for this crew. Still, Otto thinks this study's unusually long duration makes it important and unique. He says no American astronauts and just a few Russian cosmonauts have spent more than a year living continuously in space.

Dr. OTTO: What happens when we go beyond a year, when we go beyond a year and a half, when we go beyond two years?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The current American record-holder for the longest single mission in space is Michael Lopez-Alegria. He spent 215 days in orbit. He says he kept busy and could gaze back at home.

Captain MICHAEL LOPEZ-ALEGRIA (Astronaut): Looking out the window and seeing the Earth below and seeing places you recognize and where you grew up and places you visited has a lot to do with keeping sane, so to speak.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's a view the fake spaceship in Moscow won't have. But the first real mission to Mars wouldn't have it, either. From so far away, the crew would see the Earth as a just a tiny dot in space.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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