Space Agency Seeks Volunteers for Virtual Mars Mission

If you are a European or Canadian with planetary vision, want to be on space exploration's cutting edge and don't get bored easily, apply here:

The European Space Agency is looking for people like you — volunteers for a simulated mission to Mars, one of the most challenging space experiments ever.

Despite rigorous conditions — up to 520 days in "extreme isolation and confinement" — competition will be stiff, with more than 2,000 applications received in two days for only 12 spots, project manager Jennifer Ngo-Anh said Thursday.

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"The reaction has been really overwhelming. My mailbox is full," Ngo-Anh said in a telephone interview.

Unlike the adventurous spirits attracted to the desert island prospects of reality TV, only the "serious" need apply for this pretend interplanetary voyage, the space agency said.

The payoff is likely less glamorous, too.

Pay is "in line with international standards" for clinical studies, is all that ESA says.

Candidates must be citizens of one of 15 European countries or Canada, be highly motivated and speak English and Russian, among other requirements.

The Paris-based agency, known as ESA, is working on the Mars500 project with the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow and the simulated mission will be conducted there alongside Russians in the crew.

ESA is looking for 12 volunteers to investigate the "human factor" of a trip to the Red Planet — "a journey with no way out once the spaceship is on a direct path to Mars," ESA says.

The experiment will emphasize psychological factors, including stress resistance.

The goal is to test how humans hold up in nearly a year-and-a-half of close confinement, in cramped quarters with others and when communications with Earthlings can take 20 minutes to reach their destination — each way.

The simulation is to take place in a series of connected modules, mimicking life in a spacecraft on a trip to Mars, including once it has landed on the planet. The routine includes scientific experiments.

But it does not include full-time weightlessness.

"Except for weightlessness and radiation, the simulations will be as close to a real Mars mission as possible," the ESA said.

The living quarters will include 3-square-meter (30-square-foot) rooms for each crew member, a kitchen-dining room, living room — and one toilet. No shower is included, and water supply will be limited.

Food will be "predefined and carefully rationed," the ESA warns. Smoking and drinking is not allowed.

Special training that precedes the simulations will be as similar as possible to that given to astronauts, said Ngo-Anh.

Not all volunteers would have to take part in the final 520-day simulation, which will have a crew of just six: four Russians and two Europeans or Canadians.

But two pilot studies of about 100 days are to precede the big one. With two volunteers from ESA in each of the three projects, plus backups, a full dozen are needed, ESA says.

Launch date for the first of the shorter simulation voyages is mid-2008, and late 2008 or early 2009 for the full pretend trip to Mars.

ESA has a history of carrying out isolation studies but this is the longest by any space organization, officials said.

The agency, with 17 member states, has also carried out confinement studies in the name of space science — like confining a group of women volunteers to bed for 60 days in 2005.

Calls for candidates for the Mars mission went out Tuesday. By Thursday afternoon, project manager Ngo-Anh, at ESA's Science and Technology Center in the Dutch town of Noordwijk, said she had received over 2,000 applications. That's a good thing, she added.

"It will be hard to find exactly those people who fit" the profile, Ngo-Anh said.

Candidates must be 25 to 50 years old, in good health with work experience in one of several scientific fields, such as medicine, biology, computer engineering or mechanical engineering, the ESA application says.

What if something goes wrong in the living module that the medical module can't help resolve?

"Every crew (member) can leave the tank at any point in time without giving reasons," said Ngo-Anh said. "But by our selection process, we try to find those candidates likely to endure the whole mission."

Potential candidates have all summer to make up their minds. The deadline is September 30.