By Huang Leyi and Yu Fei
BEIJING, June 26 (Xinhua) -- Three young researchers walked into an airtight capsule and were locked in for 105 days. They were part of China's bio-regenerative life support systems experiment, Lunar Palace 1, a preliminary step to building a lunar base.
"We believe humans can one day live outside the earth," says Captain Xie Peizhen, 32. "That's why we were part of this experiment. This is our dream."
Xie's skin is fair after so long out of the sunlight. The smallest member of the team joined the program a decade ago when she was still an undergraduate.
She was responsible for waste disposal, micro-organism management, and farming yellow mealworms, the main protein source in their diet and a decomposition agent for some of the solid waste.
Xie was at first disgusted at the thought of eating mealworms."I hate weird food like offal and duck necks. But the experiment required me to eat mealworms, which I found were delicious after my first try."
The trio ate heartily as fellow occupant Wang Minjuan excelled at horticulture and cooking.
The type and volume of food for every meal was set before the experiment according to the nutrition needs of the inhabitants.
But it was up to chef Wang to design the recipes using the designated materials. The cooking methods were confined to steaming and boiling as other methods produce oil and smoke, which would have contaminated the recycled air.
"I enjoyed it," says Wang. "If making nice food made them happy, I would be happy too."
Wang made buns, dumplings, noodles and pancakes from the wheat they grew in the capsule. She had also made braised noodles with beans, which made the mouths of even the control room staff water.
The project included a tight schedule of experiments.
A routine day in Lunar Palace 1 started at 7:30 am, when the team had breakfast. Then they worked until lunch from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. They rested until 2 pm, then continued experiments until dinner at 5:30 pm. Sometimes they would do experiments at night after 6:30 pm, but the rest of the day was free time. A day ended with bed at 11 pm.
At night, the "Lunar Palace" reverberated to music and singing from the youngest member, Dong Chen.
The 28-year-old PhD student brought a guitar and sometimes sang to the wheat he was growing in the cabin.
A football fan, he would also shout during matches and startle his partners.
The three were a close team, but sometimes, they would feel edgy being at such close quarters for more than three months.
"I am the kind of person who likes to stay at home and it would normally be my choice to stay indoors," says Xie. "When I was trapped for 105 days, sometimes I felt like running for the door."
Through the window, Dong could see his classmates outside. "They were wearing padded coats when I first entered the capsule," he says. "I thought that we would go out when they were all wearing t-shirts."
Wang, the only married woman in the team, would chat on the Internet with her husband, who would see her every month through a window.
One afternoon, a ray of sunlight was reflected into the capsule by a window on a nearby building, which made Wang very excited. "It was the first time we had seen sunlight in a month. I could not find words to express the happiness."
"If one day humans were to leave the earth and live on another planet in a sealed, unfamiliar place, loneliness would be the greatest challenge," she says.
The three volunteers had passed physical and psychological tests before the experiment to ensure they could handle the physical constraints inside the enclosed cell.
If they could not adapt to the high carbon dioxide levels and showed symptoms such as accelerated heart rate, they would be removed from the capsule.
Another physical constraint was the limited area in the 42-square-meter living cabin.
The three worked out using exercise bikes and weights at night and Dong did extra exercise following a program he downloaded on his cell phone.
Dong says aerospace workers would sacrifice anything to explore space: "If I could travel in the space, my life will have been worth it."