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520 Days of Solitude

I have a neat job. Reading about science, chatting with scientists, and generally getting to exercise the curiosity muscle until it's all big and beefy--this is about as good as it gets.

But. Sometimes there are days when my dream job would really be staying in bed past noon, watching Gilmore Girls reruns until all the witty repartee makes my head hurt, and reading those trashy magazines I only let myself pick up at the gym or in the doctors' waiting room--because if you're exercising or about to get poked with a needle, my reasoning goes, you deserve a little indulgence. My point: Sometimes the best kind of work would be no work at all.

If this sounds appealing--and not just for a day or two but for a few hundred days--then polish up your resume, because your dream job has arrived: Professional Pretend Astronaut.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is recruiting a crew of six individuals between 20 and 50 years old to live in a sealed isolation facility in Moscow for 520 days: that is, the duration of a round trip to Mars plus a 30-day stay on the Martian surface.

What's it like to be locked in a pretend spaceship for 520 days? To get an idea, the ESA partnered with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems for a preliminary 105-day simulated mission earlier this year. The crew had work to do while locked up in the cramped module--taking psychological and physiological tests, getting themselves out of simulated jams--but crew members admitted that they got pretty bored. As New Scientist put it:

In his off-time, [German engineer Oliver] Knickel passed the time by writing letters, learning Russian, and playing poker and dice with his crewmates.

But the isolation and confinement in a cramped space did take its toll. "I had a hard time focusing on the things I was doing," Knickel told New Scientist, adding that he did not retain newly learned Russian vocabulary words was well as he did back home.

How to beat the pretend-astronaut blues? Buck up knowing that you're paving the way for a new generation of spacefarers who will make the real journey to Mars. Sure, they'll get most of the glory, but knowledge gained from your experience will make their long voyage a little more bearable.

Unless, that is, new propulsion methods like VASIMIR come on line first. VASIMIR could cut the Earth-Mars travel time down to thirty-nine days. Thirty-nine days? That's shorter than summer camp! A pretty bitter pill for anyone who volunteered to be sequestered for hundreds of days for the Greater Good.


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