Mars500 diary: The end is close

Oliver packs his bag at the end of the 105-day study
14 July 2009

With the 105-day Mars mission simulation due to end at 12:00 CEST today, ESA-selected Mars500 crewmember Oliver Knickel reflects on the past three months in his last diary entry from inside the special isolation facility at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, Russia.

Oliver Knickel writes:

The end is close. On 14 July, at 14.00 Moscow time, we will land again on 'Earth'. In the last week of isolation we have gone through a final round of intensive testing, done numerous cognitive tests, sports tests, given blood, urine and saliva samples and filled in questionnaires. This is to provide data at a point as close to the end of the isolation period as possible to later compare these results to the data collected before and after isolation, as well as to the data taken at different points throughout the study.

We have of course gone through all daily procedures one last time, a final turn on the cycle ergometer, a last electrical stimulation, worked a final nightshift and had a last stay in the sauna. And I have to say that all of us even got a little melancholic realising that next week at the same time we might never fulfil these things again which have become such familiar habits and at least right now are simply part of our every day life.

Mars500 crew passes halfway point
The crew of six leaves the facility at 12:00 CEST today

Looking back on our time in the Mars simulation facility I must admit that I have absolutely lost the feeling for time on a long-term basis. Although not having seen the Sun during the whole isolation period, I still have a sense of when it is morning and when it is evening just by how tired I am. But I absolutely have no idea about the total length of time we have spent inside the module now. It seems like three to four weeks but the calendar proves that it has been 105 days and we will leave the facility later today.

It is also remarkable that neither Cyrille nor I have something in mind what we absolutely and undoubtedly want to do within the next days or weeks. We are of course looking forward to seeing our girlfriends again and also to spend time in the summer of Moscow, but no further or more detailed thoughts. By the way, if I think about the summer…it is also crazy to imagine that we will leave the facility and it will be summer outside. When we entered the module in March there was still snow and ice on the streets and we were wearing warm jackets and hats in temperatures way below zero.

Cyrille works on an experiment for Mars500
Final samples were collected for scientific experiments

It was also funny to pack our personal stuff. During most of the time here in isolation I had the feeling that I hardly took anything inside, at least if I compared it to the equipment and things I usually have in my flat in Hamburg. So I thought that all my personal belongings should have fit into a small bag. But if I look at the bag that I have packed up, it is actually very big and pretty full. So I am right now wondering where all these things that are now in my bag have been during the last 15 weeks!

Another amusing thing is that in looking back on the isolation period, the thing I wonder about most is nothing highly technically complicated or psychologically challenging. The thing which makes me wonder the most now is why I so seldom met a crewmember in 'the tunnel'. 'The tunnel' with a length of about 10 metres is the only connection between the crew quarters and the medical module and is very narrow with a diameter of about 1.2 meters so that you can only pass through it in a bent over position and only one by one. And if I think about it, in 105 days I only had to wait to let someone else pass three or four times, which is quite remarkable if you consider that each crewmember is using this passage every day at least a dozen times or more.

Mars500 facility in Moscow
The hatch will be opened at 14:00 Moscow time (12:00 CEST)

And on the last day we of course had a celebration for successfully completing the last 3.5 months. Not only did we plunder our greenhouse, but could also more or less eat what we liked since the food experiment which made us follow a very strict diet had ended the day before. Even though we did not tend towards gluttony, it was still a nice meal, with everybody absolutely full afterwards, and a nice last gathering with the whole crew under these special circumstances.

With the doors opening at 14:00 today, none of us can deny to be looking forward to return to normal life, but all of us will also have special memories of the past months as an extraordinary event and a successfully mastered challenge in our lives. So on this last isolation day all of us have one laughing and one crying eye, rather than feeling a final relief and counting the seconds for the doors finally open.

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