MOSCOW (Reuters) - Pale-faced but smiling, the crew of a long-duration isolation study emerged bleary-eyed to a flood of daylight and applause on Friday after 520 days locked away in windowless, cramped cells to simulate the length of a journey to Mars.
The $15 million Mars500 experiment aims to answer one of the big unknowns of deep-space travel: Could people stay healthy and sane during more than six months rocketing to the Red Planet?
In a study set to recreate the psychological strain of a real Mars mission as closely as possible, the six male volunteers will briefly embrace friends and family before being ushered directly into a three-day quarantine period.
Clothed in blue jumpsuits, the would-be astronauts from Europe, Russia and China flashed waves to onlookers as the heavy metal door was shut on their home of the last 17 months in a 550-cubic-meter mock spaceship at a Moscow research institute.
"It's really, really great to see you all again, rather heartwarming," said shaky and red-eyed Diego Urbina, an Italian-Colombian participant.
"On this mission we've achieved the longest isolation ever so that humankind can go to a distant but reachable planet."
Psychologists fear a return to the noise and activity of ordinary life will come as a shock.
"Time seems to have flown by since we closed the hatch last year. But how time really felt to the crew we'll soon know. Probably we'll have a very big difference of opinion," said Igor Ushakov, head of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, which runs the "spaceship."
The crew were firmly anchored by gravity, despite the pretence of long months shuttling through space. But that did not stop them from feeling thousands of miles from home.
Mars 500 Module.
"I really felt a physical distance between our crew and the people in Mission Control. My reason knows that they're just 20 m (65 ft) away from us but my mind can't accept it," Frenchman Romain Charles wrote to Reuters on the eve of his return.
The men have fed on rations like those of real astronauts, rarely showered, taken daily urine and blood samples all while under constant, 24-hour surveillance in all but toilets -- earning the study comparisons to a reality TV show.
More than 100 different experiments crowded in on the Mars500 project, with researchers of every stripe interested in scrutinizing the men. Halfway through, three crew members even donned 32-kg (70-pound) spacesuits to clomp about in a dark, sand-filled room pretending to imitate the surface of Mars.
A previous 420-day experiment ended in drunken disaster in 2000, when two participants got into a fistfight and a third tried to forcibly kiss a female crew member.
Space officials say technology is still decades away from being able to protect astronauts from cosmic radiation, land them at least 35 million miles (56 million km) across the solar system and bring them home again.
But Charles said flying to Mars is "the next logical step for human expansion."
"If any catastrophic threat is targeting the Earth, we should be able to seek for a safe haven in another celestial body."
What advice would he give real Marsonauts to survive the monotony? "Always stay busy" and "don't forget your e-book reader!" Charles said.
Last weekend the always-awesome folks at Kuriositas published a post about the Mangyongdae fun fair, North Korea's rusting, dilapidated take on an amusement park.
The truly bizarre aspect of these photos is how deserted the park looks in all of them. While the park is designed to cater to 100,000 patrons a day, Western journalists who have visited the fun fair report that the government has to bus in a few loads of forced patrons just to keep the park from being absolutely empty. It's hard to blame North Koreans for not wanting to visit; who would want to ride a rusting tilt-a-whirl?
British journalist Alex Hoban wrote a piece for Vice last month about his own visit to the fun fair, and the whole experience sounds more terrifying than dazzling. According to Hoban, his ride on the park's rollercoaster faced a long delay while a worker with a mallet scaled the structure and knocked in a few loose screws. If you're the type of theme park fan who doesn't just want simulated danger, this is the park for you.