While the Mars-500 living unit looked like your grandmother’s basement (ugh, the wood panels!) it was actually a pretty robust simulation. By design, the capsule was set up to simulate all the aspects of the actual mission, which included having landing module and an indoor mockup of the Martian surface—complete with dirt and rocks.
Not only that, but like in a real mission, the crew had over a hundred experiments they had to carry out, ranging from microbial investigations (ew, biofilm*) to eating all the food in order to craft a better dietary regimen for astronauts. The experiments were issued by the various space industries, and despite my lethargic depiction, kept the crew pretty busy throughout the mission.
Despite this being an isolation experiment, the Mars-500 crew did have some communication with the outside world. Just like on an actual trip, they were able to send and receive data packets to and from Earth—with a distance-appropriate delay, of course. While this made email possible, internet was off the table. I recently spent a relatively short (minuscule, really) period of time without internet or phone communication for StripSearch, and let me tell you, you quickly realize how much the internet is a pervasive part of our lives. Our friend Diego, proving himself quite resourceful as an engineer, found a workaround to this problem:
In the mission we had no internet by design. They wanted to test how we could cope with that, but we had these data packages where we could put messages for family and mission control. At some point I really missed that, so I decided to spend some time programming software that would run on a computer on the ground, and would download a list of URLs that I sent through the data package system, and get them in the incoming packages 1 or 2 days later. Even though it was as bad as navigating the internet, clicking on a link and getting it 2 days later, it was the coolest thing I did in my life, although it can only be appreciated if you are in those conditions I guess (and if you are a geek, surely).
Diego also gave the crew their only window into the outside world. Using the module’s planetarium software, Diego was able to program a realtime simulation of the Mars-500 journey. As the crew got closer to their destination, they could watch the red planet get closer and closer. Between that and the internet, I’m going to take a wild guess and say Diego was one of the more popular members of the crew. You can read about his window to Mars in the diary he kept about the journey.
*A biofilm is formed when microbes adhere to one another on a surface en masse. It’s just like it sounds: slime. A sealed spacecraft can quickly become a giant incubator for all sorts of microbes, and the proliferation of biofilms can cause lots of problems for the crew in terms of an increased risk of infections and damage to sensitive equipment. Thus, scientists have now been studying how microgravity affects their growth, as well as devising new anti-microbial agents to stop them from forming. I’ll try to do a whole comic on biofilms sometime in the near future.