walk on Mars 3

After months of anticipation, on Monday 14, three brave astronauts set foot on Mars—or rather, a darkened, sand-filled room designed to simulate Mars.

The explorers make up half the crew of the Mars500 mission, a project designed to study the psychological effects of a year-and-a-half long, deep-space voyage to the red planet.

walk on Mars 2

Since June 2010 six men—three Russians, two Europeans, and one Chinese—have been living in isolation in a 19,423-cubic-foot (550-cubic-meter) “spaceship” outside Moscow, doing maintenance work, conducting experiments, and trying to stave off boredom by playing Rock Band and reading the complete works of Gabriel García Márquez.

The crew is made up of volunteers, some with no real-life space experience but all with applicable skills, such as engineering and medicine.

Radio communications with project leaders are delayed to simulate the communications lag between Earth and Mars. Illnesses are handled by a crew member serving as the ship’s doctor. The only food comes from packets of dehydrated meals.

Since the project started, scientists have been remotely studying everything that happens to the ersatz astronauts, from their internal bacteria to how they breathe at night. But now, after more than 250 days under the microscope, the astronauts are the ones performing the experiments.

walk on Mars

The spaceship entered a mock orbit around Mars on February 1, and three of the astronauts entered a separate compartment meant to simulate a Mars lander. These crew members “landed” on Mars on Saturday.

Today the hatch opened for the first of three planned extravehicular activities, or EVAs, on the “Martian” surface.

walk on Mars 4