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CENTURY SPACE RACE: Who will be first on Mars

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — We were the first to send man into space. The Americans were the first to walk on the moon. After the earthman steps on the surface of Mars and becomes the first person on another planet, in the Solar System, the “time of the first” is likely to end. And to repeat success again, it will be necessary to fly to a neighboring star, and this will succeed in the best case not earlier than the middle of the next century.

Last goal

There are a total of 13 planets in the solar system. Usual – 8, on one of them we live, and 5 – dwarf. Together they have 182 satellites. Far beyond the orbit of Pluto, there is also the ninth “big” planet, but so far it has not been possible to see it. Despite this diversity, there is nowhere for cosmonauts to especially walk.

Despite the fact that Mars is not too hospitable, other celestial bodies are even less suitable for walking. Yes, and fly to them incomparably longer. There are many reasons why Mars will be perhaps the only important goal of the manned missions of this century.

Flying to Mars is not an easy event. An order of magnitude more complicated than flying to the nearest celestial body in space – the Moon. In order to safely deliver a person to the Red Planet and return it just as safely, one has to find answers to many questions related to radiation protection, providing comfortable flight conditions, arranging a safe landing on the planet’s surface and, especially, taking off from it.

As a result, having found all the answers, it is necessary to put together the necessary components of the future interplanetary journey: a rocket, a ship, a landing module, and more. Their presence, or the prospect of construction, will serve as a criterion for the ability of a country (or group of countries) to reach the surface of Mars and win the space race. Given that such a flight is also a matter of prestige, we will take into account other factors, for example, the presence of political will.


Last time, we settled on the fact that in 1972 NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan was the last of the earthlings to walk on the moon. He returned to the Challenger lunar module after his mate, geologist Harrison Schmitt, becoming the last person to date whose foot has stepped on any other celestial body except our planet. The main space race of the last century is over. Mankind has found for itself in space more mundane goals in all senses of the word. Deep space exploration entrusted to automatic probes.

Today in the USA they are completely sure that the first flag that will fly in the Martian wind will be exactly the American one. Therefore, preparations for a manned flight to Mars are approached in detail and without haste, constantly changing plans and pushing the deadlines. NASA is slowly and stubbornly working to someday send a person to the Red Planet. Nevertheless, when we hear Mars, Musk is heard.

It is Elon Musk who speaks of Mars more than others and especially “shows” very beautifully. The goal of his private space company SpaceX is to allow people to live on other planets. First of all, on Mars. Musk has repeatedly stated that he plans to send a man to the Red Planet. At the moment, a manned flight is scheduled for 2024.

Earlier, SpaceX intended to begin exploration of Mars with the sending of unmanned missions Red Dragon. The first flight was scheduled for 2018. The mission planned to use the Falcon Heavy super-launch vehicle and the Dragon V2 spacecraft intended for manned flights, the second version of the Dragon ship that the company is developing as part of the NASA Commercial Crew Development program. The Falcon Heavy launcher has been developed since 2011 and after repeated carryings of the first launch in February last year, it was successfully launched . Almost successfully: the central unit could not be planted on a floating platform.

After the first test flight of Crew Dragon to the ISS in March, SpaceX already in November this year plans to conduct a second test flight of Crew Dragon to the ISS with astronauts Bob Benken and Doug Hurley on board. It would seem that SpaceX is almost ready for an unmanned flight to Mars. However, it recalls the story – the company refused the Red Dragon missions in July 2017, when it was announced that the development of the program was suspended in favor of larger missiles, namely the ITS ( Interplanetary Transport System ), an interplanetary transport system announced by SpaceX a year earlier.

In September 2017, at the Adelaide International Congress on Astronautics, the entrepreneur presented a new plan for the development of a transport system using the Big Falcon Rocket rocket, which will replace all existing SpaceX rockets and spaceships, including Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, a cargo spacecraft Dragon and manned Dragon V2. It is on the development of the reusable manned BFR system that SpaceX now plans to focus.

So, the BFR (StarShip) project involves the creation of a reusable launch vehicle and spacecraft, as well as ground-based infrastructure for their launch and reuse. In addition to this, fuel depots will be launched into space for refueling missiles in low Earth orbit. The new rocket, as stated, can be used including for the exploration of Mars, including both missions with the sending of cargo and manned.

BFR is much larger than the existing SpaceX rockets, which will allow to bring 150 tons of cargo into low orbit. For comparison, Falcon Heavy is able to bring only 63,800 kg to DOE, and send 16,800 kg to Mars. However, this already makes it the most lifting rocket of our time.

But still, the “Big Falcon” is smaller than a rocket from the ITS project. The planned length is 106 m, diameter – 9 m. This is less than the previous ITS project – 122 m and 12 m, respectively. The rocket carrying capacity from an earlier project would also be substantially greater: 300,000 kg on a DOE, 420,000 kg on Mars (with refueling at an NGO).

The BFR will consist of a reusable launch stage (BFR booster) and a spaceship (BFR spaceship), designed to deliver people or goods to low Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars or anywhere on the Earth in suborbital flights. It is assumed that ships with cargo or crew will go to Mars after refueling in orbit of the Earth. For the subsequent return to Earth, it will be necessary to organize the production of fuel on the Red Planet itself from local resources.

The development of the BFR concept began in 2012 with the creation of the Raptor rocket engine. The first successful fire tests of the engine at the stand were carried out in September 2016. The engine runs on liquid methane and liquid oxygen rather than kerosene and liquid oxygen, as in today’s Falcon 9 rockets and their Merlin engines. The choice of such a fuel pair is due to the ability to produce fuel on Mars. Methane can be easily synthesized locally using water and carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere thanks to the Sabatier reaction. NASA has already reported the discovery of a large number of underground ice on the planet.

The idea of ​​getting fuel for a return flight on the planet itself is not new. Back in 1990, it was outlined in the Mars Direct plan, presented by NASA engineers Robert Zubrin and David Baker. However, to carry out the reaction, you need a source of energy, and most likely it will be a nuclear reactor, which will need to be delivered to the surface of the planet in advance, even before the astronauts land, in order to have time to produce the required amount of fuel.

The BFR StarShip will have a sealed volume of 825 cubic meters, which can accommodate up to 40 crew cabins, spacious common areas, warehouses, kitchens, and shelters to protect people during solar flares. It is planned that the construction of the first rocket will begin this year. SpaceX promises to launch BFR with cargo to Mars in 2022. Two years later, a manned flight will follow.

NASA Space Agency should organize the first manned expedition to Mars in the 2030s of this century. In December 2017, US President Donald Trump signed the “Space Policy Directive No. 1,” which actually obliges the agency to prepare a manned flight for this deadline. At the same time, American astronauts must return to the moon.

One of the elements of the NASA Martian program is the new superheavy rocket SLS (Space Launch System). The rocket has been developed by Boeing since 2011. A test launch was expected in December 2019, but it was postponed.

In an unmanned flight, the launch vehicle will go along with the new Orion multi-purpose manned spacecraft. Lockheed Martin won the tender for the design and construction of the ship back in 2006. The first unmanned test flight of Orion took place on December 5, 2014. It used the Delta IV Heavy missile. This mission actually corresponded to the 1967 Apollo 4 test mission, which tested the control system and heat shield of the Apollo ship.

In the basic version, the SLS will be able to launch 70 tons of cargo into the reference orbit, but the rocket design provides for the possibility of increasing the carrying capacity to 130 tons in the enhanced version.

During the tests, Orion went into orbit about 5.8 thousand kilometers above the Earth. This is more than 14 times higher than the orbit of the ISS. However, not the entire designed ship was tested, but only the command compartment, the second necessary part of the ship — the service module, which should provide the possibility of movement in space and the ship’s power supply — is not yet ready. He is engaged in the European Space Agency. In the first flight, the functions of the service module were performed by the upper stage of the rocket.

By design, the new ship resembles the ships of previous NASA programs of the pre-Shuttle era Mercury and Apollo. At the same time, Orion is larger and more powerful than its predecessors. Its total mass exceeds 20 tons, the height of the cone-shaped cargo module is more than three meters, the base diameter is about five meters. He is able to take on board up to six astronauts, and the volume of his living space can be compared with a small room – nine cubic meters.

In January last year, Lockheed Martin officially announced the construction of the ship, which will be launched along with the SLS missile. The manned flight of Orion will be part of the program for the creation of the international lunar orbital station Deep Space Gateway (now the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway), the construction of which, in turn, is a step on the road to flight to Mars.

NASA intends to build the visited DSG station in lunar orbit, which will not only be designed to study the moon, but will also act as a spaceport for Martian expeditions. The station will have four modules – residential, electric, supply module and airlock. It is assumed that ESA will take part in the creation of the electric motor module, and Roscosmos Corporation will take part in the gateway. It will be created on the basis of the docking compartment module “Pirs” and the nodal module “Berth” developed for the ISS, however, it will comply with American standards. Perhaps Russia will also take part in the creation of a residential module.

However, the construction of the station is impossible without the super-heavy Space Launch System rocket, which has a leading role in launching the station’s modules into high lunar orbit, but so far its first launch has been constantly delayed.

After the construction of the lunar station, NASA plans to develop an interplanetary spacecraft Deep Space Transport (DST), which will be designed for flights in the solar system, including to Mars.

Transport will pick up the crew from the station, deliver it to the destination and back. Here, at the station, the interplanetary ship will be serviced and repaired. DST will use a combination of electric and chemical engines and accommodate a crew of six. Testing of the ship is planned in the 2020s, and at the end of the decade, NASA plans to send astronauts for a year on a trip around the moon to test its systems.

And if everything seems to be clear with how to get to Mars, then how to board it is still not entirely clear. William Gerstenmeier, NASA’s deputy administrator for manned space missions, said in July 2017 that the agency simply did not know how to land a ship with astronauts on Mars.

The atmosphere of the planet is quite dense, and spacecraft launched to the surface have to be equipped with a heat shield, but at the same time it is so rarefied that it is impossible to land a heavy spaceship using parachutes.

The Curiosity rover weighs only 899 kg, but it is the heaviest spacecraft to make a soft landing on Mars. For its descent to the surface, the agency applied a sophisticated method that combines a parachute and the so-called “sky crane” hovering above the surface thanks to rocket engines. But the descent module with astronauts should weigh about 10-15 tons, and how to put something like that on Mars is unknown.

So far, in October 2017, the agency conducted successful tests of the parachute system for the Mars 2020 mission. Its mass will be slightly more than its predecessor – about 950 kilograms. We also recall the unsuccessful tests in 2015 of the Martian “flying saucer” Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a system that was supposed to provide the landing of heavy vehicles on the surface of Mars.

The United States is the only country to officially plan a flight to Mars. But even America today does not have all the necessary components for the Martian expedition. However, NASA was the first to prepare. The SLS rocket, so needed for building a moon base and putting heavy loads into orbit, should soon fly into space. The spacecraft needed to deliver people to orbit is also promised to be coming soon. DST space transport itself for delivering people to Mars is only in the project. They will undertake it only after the construction of the near-moon base, the construction of which has not yet begun, since there is no rocket. As for the descent to the planet, NASA engineers do not yet know how to implement it. Naturally, it’s too early to talk about the landing module.

Nevertheless, the United States has both financial and technical capabilities in order to ever send a person to Mars. And if the political or economic situation in the world and in the States themselves does not change, then they will do it first. It is clear that not at the time that is claimed.

As for Mask, he, of course, has made good progress in the commercialization of space. However, all the dates he calls are also constantly postponed, and programs are reviewed. Although he launched the Falcon Heavy, as promised, he still sent a roadster to Mars, not a spaceship, as suggested by the canceled Red Dragon program. There is still no certainty that Elon Musk will meet the deadlines this time and even more so ahead of NASA.

The United States will be the first to set its flag on Mars: a probability of 50 out of 100.


At the beginning of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the green light to the creation of a new Russian super-heavy carrier rocket. It is supposed to be used for lunar and Martian missions. Perhaps the rocket will find application in the construction of the international space station Deep Space Gateway. The head developer determined the space rocket corporation “Energy”. It is emphasized that this is not the “Angara” and the revival of the Energy-Buran program. The new rocket will be created on the basis of the promising medium-class launch vehicle Soyuz-5, which is also being developed by Energia Corporation. The Soyuz-5 rocket will be capable of placing up to 17 tons of cargo into low Earth orbit. The developed “super-heavy” should ensure the launch of cargo weighing up to 90 tons into low Earth orbit and at least 20 tons into the near-moon polar orbit.

Also, until 2028, a launch complex and ground-based infrastructure for rocket launches will be created at Vostochny Cosmodrome. The preliminary design of the launch complex will be developed before the end of 2019. According to the plan, flight tests of the new superheavy launch vehicle should begin by 2027.

However, it is worth noting that the creation of a superheavy rocket has not yet been included in the Federal Space Program. As well as it does not have a manned flight to Mars. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that the program may be revised. New goals in space can pull the industry out of stagnation and, of course, strengthen the country’s prestige.

A new spaceship is also being created in Russia , designed to replace the Soyuz and the Progress. The new Federation spaceship should become a true universal, suitable, unlike its predecessors, for flights to the moon and for outer space.

The ship will have a living space of 9 cubic meters, which is four times more than that of the Soyuz, and the autonomous flight period increased to 30 days. However, on the “Federation” you will not fly to Mars. The purpose of her participation in the expedition will be limited only to the delivery of astronauts to near-Earth orbit before the flight and their return from orbit after. A long journey to the Red Planet of the “Federation” is beyond its power, it needs a separate ship, at least having sufficient capacity for comfortable accommodation of expedition members and supplies for the duration of the flight. Yes, and for descent to the surface you will need a landing module.

The “Martian ship” will have to be assembled in orbit from several modules, launching rockets with all its parts in turn. It will start from Mars to Mars. As a crew location, you can use a residential module similar to the Russian Zvezda module of the International Space Station. This option, by the way, is offered by Robert Zubrin and some other experts. The experience of building and operating the module is already available, it will not be necessary to invent something new, it is enough to upgrade what is already there.

NASA focuses on a long expedition to Mars. However, the longer the flight, the more crew members risk their health. In Russia, the creation of a megawatt-class nuclear power propulsion system designed for deep space flights is underway. This is a joint project of Roscosmos and Rosatom. As noted by the former head of Rosatom State Corporation Sergey Kiriyenko, a nuclear power plant allows you to reach Mars in one and a half months, providing the possibility of maneuvering and acceleration. Using traditional technologies, it will take about a year and a half to fly to Mars.

Work on the creation of a transport energy module based on such an installation began in 2010, and in 2012 a technical project was completed. According to the terms of reference, the nuclear power unit consists of two parts: the power unit itself, which includes a nuclear reactor with shadow radiation protection, a converter of thermal energy into electrical energy and a system for dumping excess heat into space, as well as a propulsion system with plasma engines.

Russia does not officially include a flight to the Red Planet in its space program. Moreover, we are not working on a Martian landing module. However, such a flight is a chance to take revenge in the race for the moon. And such a hope is nurtured, as I think, by both our politicians and designers. Only our country has space ambitions that are not inferior to the United States. In addition, we have technology, production facilities and experience in space victories.

If not for Russia, then the present human presence in outer space would be substantially less. There would be no International Space Station built thanks to our experience in building space stations for several decades. There would be no one to carry astronauts into space. The current manned space program is largely based on Russia.

As you know, we harness for a long time, but drive fast. If there is political will, and economic growth in the country will provide funding for space programs, then we can quickly collect all the necessary elements of the Martian expedition. We have experience in creating superheavy rockets, and we also planned to build a new “superheavy”, albeit with a delay. The Russian module of the ISS Zvezda is generally suitable for the role of interplanetary transport. But most importantly, in our country, the creation of a propulsion system capable of delivering the Martian expedition to its destination in a short time is in full swing. The fact that we are the first in nuclear energy is beyond doubt. It is one thing to fly 1.5 months, another is a year and a half. Less reserves, health damage to astronauts and unforeseen flight situations.

But again, we do not have landing systems on the Red Planet. And we are not friends with Mars, our flights to it often ended unsuccessfully. Nevertheless, not such difficulties were solved by our designers and scientists.

Russia will take revenge for the moon, and we will be the first to walk on Mars: a probability of 30 out of 100.


In July 2017, China announced plans to study the solar system in the next twenty years. In addition to missions to the moon and Mars, it includes flights of automatic stations to one of the near-Earth asteroids and Ganymede – the largest satellite of Jupiter.

In 2020, China planned to send its rover to Mars, and hopes to deliver soil samples from Mars around 2030. But the success of these missions depends on the creation of China’s superheavy Changzheng-9 rocket. The carrier being developed, comparable with the Saturn-5 rocket, will have to put up to 133 tons of payload into a low reference orbit and up to 50 tons into a geostationary one. Its first flight is expected in 2028 in preparation for a flight to the moon in the 2030s. It was stated that about 70% of the equipment and components needed for the test flight are currently being tested.

At one time, the chief engineer of the Chinese lunar program, Yu. Weizhen, said that the meaning of the Chinese lunar program is to develop research methods and technical solutions for the exploration of Mars. If China manages to send a man to the moon, then the next obvious goal will be Mars. In addition, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are developing a joint satellite exploration project for our planet. Negotiations are underway to build a “lunar village”, which in the future could become a launching pad for the launch of an expedition to Mars.

To overtake Russia and the USA on the way to Mars would be a serious reputation success for China. It is possible that the Chinese leadership still has such plans, but so far China has been catching up. It is no secret that most of Chinese space technology comes from the USSR. But our Martian and manned lunar programs were not successful enough, therefore, in exploring the Red Planet of the PRC, you will have to rely only on yourself. The United States is doing its best to prevent space secrets from falling into the hands of China. And now Celestial Empire does not have any technologies that can significantly bring the country closer to flying to Mars.

However, China may well become a leader if the United States continues to postpone a manned flight, and Russia does not want to get involved in the Martian race. In this case, China, aspiring to become a leading world power, will have every chance to land on Mars first.

China will break into the lead and be the first to fly to Mars: a probability of 30 out of 100.

European Union

The Aurora project – a program of the European Space Agency for the study of the solar system – includes the study of the moon and Mars with automated probes, as well as manned flights to them. However, the flight to the Red Planet is supposed to be carried out only in international cooperation.

A manned flight to the moon is planned for 2024, to Mars – for 2033. Although it is worth noting, this part of the program was called into question by the main countries participating in the European Space Agency, and it is possible that the entire Aurora program will be reoriented only to the robotic exploration of Mars.

Europe does not show ambitions for independent visits to Mars, and does not have the appropriate technology. European astronauts can be the first to visit the Red Planet only if other countries refuse such a mission.

Unexpectedly for everyone, the European will be the first on the Red Planet: a probability of 10 out of 100.


India already has a developed space program and is currently the sixth space power in terms of potential. It independently launches communications satellites into geostationary orbit and automatic interplanetary stations to the moon and Mars. In 2013, the Mangalyaan AMC was sent to Mars, designed to study the planet from orbit. It has India and its own manned space program. Last summer, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its currently heaviest GSLV-Mk III rocket.

It is assumed that it will be used to launch the orbital Indian spacecraft Orbital Vehicle into orbit. A capsule weighing three tons will be designed for a crew of three. In addition, it will now be possible to build its own orbital station.

In the future, ISRO also plans manned flights to the moon in cooperation with other countries or even independently. In 2004, the Indian president Abdul Kalam issued a statement in which he proposed that the United States send an American-Indian crew to Mars until 2050.

As with Europe, a flight to India from Mars will be a surprise: a probability of 10 out of 100.

International expedition

Modern cosmonautics is not at all what fiction writers of the past described it. Neither private companies nor new space powers can change this. In any case, in the foreseeable future.

We examined several planned projects of space expeditions, however, there have been many of them in the entire history of astronautics. But all of them remained unrealized. The experience of cooperation in space suggests that large projects work out only together. An example of this is the International Space Station. And the USA is not ready, as we see, to build a new near-moon station.

Man’s flight to another planet is the business of all mankind, and not the ambitions of one power. Only in the confrontation of systems could one prove his superiority through victories in space. Yes, this was an incentive justifying the enormous expenses, incredible efforts and the risk that the astronauts took. This race brought us into space. Now we need a new message. Flying to Mars can serve as a unifying goal for all of humanity. It should be international and, most likely, it will be so. We will join forces and send a general expedition to Mars.

The United States, for example, will put into orbit the elements of the expeditionary ship with a new superheavy rocket SLS. The astronaut will be delivered by the Orion spaceship. Russia will create an interplanetary transport ship and a propulsion system that will deliver people to Mars. We will reach the Red Planet much faster if we get down to business together.

The first earthlings who set foot on the surface of Mars will be representatives of all mankind, and not of any one state: a probability of 90 out of 100.


This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.

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