Remember the Viking landers of the mid-70s and the Mariner probes of the 1960s? Half a century later and we’re still gathering data. Enough. It’s been fun but Stage One is complete. The recon mission is over. We know plenty about Mars and more data is constantly streaming in from Mars Odyssey; the remains of Opportunity; Mars Express; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Science Laboratory. There’s been 44 Mars missions so far, about half of which have succeeded. We’ve got more planned: MAVEN, the ESA’s ExoMars Orbiter and Rover and in 2020 yet another rover designed to “meet our nation’s scientific and human exploration objectives”. What?! Haven’t they all been doing that? It’s time for the humans. Let’s see which countries* are ready to get serious.
* I’ll be covering non-government Mars missions in the upcoming part 2 of this article
The Chinese seem to be recreating the US & Russian space programs, following the same general milestones of launches and spacewalks. Their first astronaut was launched on Shenzhou 5 in 2003 and there are plans for a space station by 2020, a few probes, and ideas about growing vegetables on Mars. There’s been a few mentions of a crewed lunar landing on the Moon by 2025 but nothing definitive. Plans for Mars get even more hazy with a mooted timeline of around 2040 to 2060.
The ESA’s mission statement gives a good indication of their lack of enthusiasm for crewed exploration: “ESA’s purpose shall be to provide for, and to promote, for exclusively peaceful purposes, cooperation among European States in space research and technology and their space applications, with a view to their being used for scientific purposes and for operational space applications systems.” Nothing exciting or daring in there. There was a brief period of enthusiasm for the crewed Aurora expedition to Mars in the early 2030s but that seems to have cooled, literally, to a mere study involving Antarctic research. The ESA Hermes mini-shuttle was cancelled in 1995. In 2012 the ESA joined NASA’s Orion program.
The ambitious Phobos-Grunt sample-return mission to the Martian moon Phobos was launched in November 2011 but failed to leave Earth orbit and was destroyed on re-entry a few months later. Aboard was the Chinese Mars orbiter Yinghuo-1. Before that the Russians had launched the big Mars-96 mission (in 1996) with an orbiter and ground stations, but that too never left Earth orbit. Going back to 1988 they had the twin Phobos probes: one died enroute, the other managed a few dozen low-res images before it too went dead. In the more ambitious 1960s and 70s the Soviets planned the “TMK” mission which would have been a crewed fly-by of Mars. But that mission relied on using the big N1 booster which was itself a failure. With such a sad recent history, what might the Russians be planning? A reconfigured Phobos-Grunt mission is planned for 2020. Happily the Russian space budget is steadily increasing. The Roscosmos budget this year is 169.8 billion rubles (US$5.6 billion), about half of which is spent on crewed activities and systems. Every now and then a Russian official will make excited noises about Mars but there seems little prospect of any near-term crewed mission.
Most of what we know about Mars comes from NASA. No one else comes even remotely close to anything NASA has achieved on Mars. The trouble is that all we’re being offered for the next 20 years is more of the same. More rovers, more mapping, more soil analysis. says NASA: “Building on the success of Curiosity’s landing, NASA has announced plans for a new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020. This announcement affirms the agency’s commitment to a bold exploration program.” Bold ? No. Sending a probe every five or 10 years is not bold. NASA goes on to state: “The budget for this mission is contingent on future appropriations. To keep mission costs and risks as low as possible, the highly capable rover would be based on NASA’s successful Mars Science Laboratory mission architecture, including the proven guided entry and sky-crane landing system that successfully carried the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface in August, 2012.” So, barring any cutbacks what we get is Curiosity 2. I’m sure that’s an exciting prospect for a tiny slither of the science community but it’s not going to inspire a new generation of researchers as did the Apollo project.
There’s been plenty of talk. Mars Direct, the 90-Day study, and the Design Reference reports (PDF link) to name a few. Under the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration outlined by then president Bush, a lunar outpost would have been established in 2012 and a crewed Mars landing around 2037. What remains of the VSE plan is the Orion capsule aiming not for the Moon or Mars, but a large rock.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in December 2012: “The Obama administration is committed to a robust Mars exploration program. With this next mission (ed: the 2020 rover), we’re ensuring America remains the world leader in the exploration of the Red Planet, while taking another significant step toward sending humans there in the 2030s.” Less explicit is that the mid-2030s missions would only be a orbital fly-by, not a landing. That pushes any prospect of a crewed landing to the 2040s. So now it’s another project 25 or 30 years away. That’s beginning to sound a lot like fusion power: it’s been 30 years away since 1980.
On the above timelines we may see a new Mars race in the early 2040s between the US and China. But personally I don’t think NASA or the Chinese will get us to Mars, or at least they won’t be first. It’ll be private companies and organizations in the mid 2020s, and that’s the topic for part 2 of this article.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
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