Spaceflight Insider

Surviving Mars on Earth: An interview with Mars500 participant

Diego Urbina at the Mars500 press conference on Nov. 8, 2011

Diego Urbina at the Mars500 press conference on Nov. 8, 2011. Credit: ESA/IBMP O. Voloshin

Meet the man who has survived Mars on Earth. Diego Urbina, an Italian-Colombian engineer, was part of a 520-day, record-breaking simulated mission to the Red Planet. He participated in the final stage of the Mars500 experiment, a year-and-a-half isolation from the rest of the world, intended to determine how the human mind and body would cope on a long-duration spaceflight. The last stage of the study was conducted at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow from June 3, 2010 to Nov. 4, 2011. In an interview with, Urbina talks about his Mars500 experience, the difficulties of isolation experiments, and his possible future space flights. What was the most challenging part of the Mars 500 study?

Diego Urbina: “The most challenging part was being isolated from society. We as humans are social beings and not communicating directly is difficult for practical, but also psychological reasons.”

Diego Urbina, Mars500

During the Mars500 simulated mission, Diego Urbina used tools that were designed originally for the Russian manned Lunar missions in 1960’s and 1970’s. The missions were cancelled, but much of the hardware is remaining. Here he is using some of these tools during the ‘Marswalk’. Credit: ESA Have you had any moments when you wanted to quit the study and return home?

Urbina: “No, we were very focused, and surprisingly the idea never crossed our minds; even in difficult times.” How did the long term isolation affect you? What have you learned from it?

Urbina: “I learned to appreciate the small things in life, and learned much about myself.” Is it hard to communicate and live with an international group for so long, isolated from the world?

Urbina: “It is not easy, but we were lucky in that we were part of a carefully selected group. In my case, I enjoy being in such an international group, and learning new things all the time.” What were your main duties during the Mars500 study?

Urbina: “We, as a crew, executed more than 100 experiments. In my personal case, I was also dealing with computers and things of the sort that needed to be repaired. I was also part of a group of 3 that conducted a series of EVAs [Extravehicular Activities] on the simulated Martian surface.” Would you like to join ESA’s astronaut corps and fly to space?

Urbina: “I wouldn’t mind!” Would you go to Mars if you had the chance?

Urbina: “I would, but only if there was a chance to make it back.” Should we conduct more Mars500-like studies to better prepare us to deep space exploration?

Urbina: “We could, but at some point we should use the lessons learned and do the real thing. There is only so much you can learn from repeating similar tests.” In your opinion, when first humans will land on Mars?

Urbina: “If there was the political will to do it, perhaps 15-20 years after there is a green light.”


Diego Urbina

Diego Urbina. Credit: ESA / Anneke Le Floc’h

Diego Urbina, born in May 1983, has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Electronics Engineering from the Politecnico di Torino, in Turin, Italy and a Master’s degree in Space Studies from the International Space University, in Strasbourg, France. Before the Mars500 experiment, he was a crew member at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, in Jan. 2010, researching the growth of tropical plants and spacesuit constraints. He was an Attitude and Orbit Control Systems researcher for the Aramis nanosatellite at the Politecnico di Torino in 2008. Following graduation, Urbina spent time as an outreach and educational activity organizer in the developing world. Prior to this he was an operations and astronaut training intern at the Neutral Buoyancy Facility of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany from May to Aug. 2009. Urbina participated in the ‘Image Reversal In Space’ (IRIS) experiment for the ISS, supporting numerous measurements for baseline data collection and testing the experiment during ESA’s 50th Parabolic Flight Campaign in 2009.


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