Space race of the century: who will be the first on Mars

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Space race of the century: who will be the first on Mars
Space race of the century: who will be the first on Mars

Naked Science evaluated the starting positions of the "racing" teams, looked closely at the "cars" and estimated the chances of success.

colonization of Mars

We were the first to send a man into space. The Americans were the first to walk on the moon. After an earthling steps onto the surface of Mars and becomes the first person on another planet, the "time of the first" in the solar system will probably end. And in order to repeat the success again, it will be necessary to fly to the neighboring star, and this will succeed, at best, not earlier than the middle of the next century.

The final goal

There are a total of 13 planets in the solar system. Ordinary - 8, we live on one of them, and 5 - dwarf ones. Together they have 182 satellites. Far beyond the orbit of Pluto, there is also a ninth "major" planet, but it has not yet been possible to see it. Despite such a variety, there is nowhere for astronauts to take a walk from Earth.

Despite the fact that Mars is not very hospitable, other celestial bodies are even less suitable for walking. And the flight to them is incomparably longer. There are many reasons why Mars will be perhaps the single most important target for manned missions this century.

Flying to Mars is not an easy undertaking. An order of magnitude more difficult than a flight to the nearest celestial body in space - the Moon. In order to safely deliver a person to the Red Planet and return him just as safely, it is necessary to find answers to many questions related to protection from radiation, ensuring comfortable conditions in flight, organizing a safe landing on the planet's surface, and even more so taking off from it.


As a result, having found all the answers, you need to put together the necessary components of the future interplanetary travel: a rocket, a ship, a lander and more. Their presence, or the prospect of construction, will serve as a criterion for the possibility of this or that country (or group of countries) to reach the surface of Mars and win the space race. Considering 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 stopped at the fact that in 1972, NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan was the last of the earthlings to walk on the moon. He returned to the lunar module "Challenger" after his partner, 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. Humanity has found for itself in space more mundane goals in every sense of the word. Deep space exploration was entrusted to automatic probes.

Today, the United States is fully confident that the first flag that will fly in the Martian wind will be the American one. Therefore, the preparation for a manned flight to Mars is approached thoroughly and without haste, constantly changing plans and postponing deadlines. NASA is working slowly and hard to one day send a man to the Red Planet. And yet, when we hear Mars, Musk is heard.

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

Previously, SpaceX intended to start Mars exploration by sending unmanned Red Dragon missions. The first flight was scheduled for 2018. The mission was to use the Falcon Heavy super-heavy launch vehicle and the Dragon V2 manned spacecraft, the second version of the Dragon spacecraft that the company is developing as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Development program.The Falcon Heavy booster has been in development since 2011 and, after repeated postponements of the first launch in February last year, has been successfully launched. Almost successfully: it was not possible to land the central block on a floating platform.


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

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


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

The BFR is much larger than existing SpaceX rockets, allowing 150 tons of cargo to be launched into low orbit. For comparison, Falcon Heavy is capable of delivering only 63,800 kg to LEO, and 16,800 kg to Mars. However, this already makes it the most lifting rocket of our time.


Still, the Big Falcon is smaller than the rocket from the ITS project. The planned length is 106 m, the diameter is 9 m. This is less than the previous ITS project - 122 m and 12 m, respectively. The payload of a rocket from an earlier project would also have been significantly higher: on LEO - 300,000 kg, on Mars - 420,000 kg (with refueling at NPO).

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


Development of the BFR concept began in 2012 with the creation of the Raptor rocket engine. The first successful firing 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 amount of underground ice on the planet.

The idea of ​​obtaining 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, a source of energy is needed, 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 disembark, in order to have time to produce the required amount of fuel.

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 a BFR with cargo to Mars in 2022. A manned flight will follow in two years.

The 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 Directive No. 1 on space policy, which effectively obliges the agency to prepare a manned flight by this date. At the same time, American astronauts must return to the moon.

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


The launch vehicle will go on unmanned flight together with the new multipurpose manned spacecraft Orion. Lockheed Martin won the tender for the design and construction of the ship back in 2006. Orion's first unmanned test flight took place on December 5, 2014. It used a Delta IV Heavy heavy rocket. This mission actually matched the 1967 Apollo 4 test mission, which tested the Apollo control system and heat shield.

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

During the tests, Orion ascended 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 projected ship was tested, but only the command compartment, the second necessary part of the ship - the service module, which should provide the ability to move in space and power the ship - is not yet ready. It is handled by the European Space Agency. In the first flight, the upper stage of the rocket performed the functions of the service module.


The design of the new ship resembles the ships of the 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 weight exceeds 20 tons, the height of the cone-shaped cargo module is more than three meters, the diameter of the base is about five meters. It is capable of taking on board up to six astronauts, and the volume of its living space can be compared to a small room - nine cubic meters.

In January last year, Lockheed Martin officially announced the start of construction on the ship, which will be launched alongside the SLS rocket. The manned flight of Orion will be part of the program to create an international lunar orbital station Deep Space Gateway (now Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway), the construction of which, in turn, is a step towards a flight to Mars.


NASA is going to build a visited DSG station in lunar orbit, which will not only be used to study the moon, but also act as a spaceport for Martian expeditions. The station will have four modules - residential, electric motor, supply module and airlock. It is assumed that ESA will take part in the creation of the electric motor module, and the Roscosmos corporation will take part in the creation of the airlock. It will be created on the basis of the Pirs docking module and the Prychal nodal module, developed for the ISS, but 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 Space Launch System super-heavy rocket, which is assigned the leading role in launching the station modules into high lunar orbit, but so far its first launch has been constantly postponed.

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 Mars.


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

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

The planet's atmosphere is dense enough, and spacecraft descending 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 spacecraft using parachutes.

The Curiosity rover weighs only 899 kg, but it is the heaviest spacecraft to make a soft landing on Mars. To bring it down to the surface, the agency used an ingenious method that combined a parachute and a 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 land something like that on Mars is unknown.

So far, in October 2017, the agency has successfully tested the parachute system for the Mars 2020 mission. Its weight will not be much larger than its predecessor - about 950 kilograms. Let us also recall the unsuccessful tests in 2015 of the Martian "flying saucer" Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), a system that was supposed to ensure the landing of heavy vehicles on the surface of Mars.

The United States is the only country to officially schedule a flight to Mars. But even America today does not have all the necessary components for a Mars expedition. However, NASA was the first to start preparing. The SLS rocket, so necessary for the construction of a lunar base and the launch of heavy loads into orbit, is soon to fly into space. The spacecraft needed to get people into orbit is also promised to be available soon. The DST space transport itself for delivering people to Mars is only in the project. They will undertake it only after the construction of the lunar base, which has not yet begun to be built, since there is no rocket. As for the descent to the planet, NASA engineers do not yet know how to carry it out. Naturally, it's too early to talk about the lander.


Nevertheless, the United States has both the financial and technical capabilities to one day send a man to Mars. And if the political or economic situation in the world and in the States themselves does not change, they will be the first to do so. It is clear that not in the terms stated.

As for Musk, he is certainly well advanced in the commercialization of space. However, all the terms he called are also constantly postponed, and the programs are being revised. Although he launched the Falcon Heavy as promised, a roadster was sent to Mars, and not a spacecraft, 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 plant its flag on Mars: 50 out of 100 probability.


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


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

However, it should be noted that the creation of a super-heavy rocket has not yet been included in the Federal Space Program. As well as there is no manned flight to Mars. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that the program may be revised. New goals in space could pull the industry out of stagnation and, of course, enhance the country's prestige.

A new spacecraft is being created in Russia to replace Soyuz and Progress. The new spacecraft "Federation" should become a real all-rounder, suitable, unlike its predecessors, both for flights to the moon and for near 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, the Federation cannot fly to Mars. The purpose of her participation in the expedition will be limited only to the delivery of cosmonauts to near-earth orbit before the flight and their return from orbit after. A long journey to the Red Planet "Federation" is not possible, here you need a separate ship, at least with sufficient capacity to comfortably accommodate members of the expedition and supplies for the duration of the flight. Yes, and you will need a lander to descend to the surface.

The "Martian ship" will have to be assembled in orbit from several modules, launching in turn a rocket with all its parts. It will start to Mars from orbit. As a place to accommodate the crew, you can use a living module, similar to the Russian module "Zvezda" of the International Space Station. This option, by the way, is proposed by Robert Zubrin and some other experts. The experience of building and operating the module is already available, it is not required to invent something new, it is enough to modernize what is already there.

NASA is focusing on a long-term expedition to Mars. However, the longer the flight, the more the crew members risk their health. In Russia, a megawatt-class nuclear propulsion system is being created, designed for flights into deep space. This is a joint project of Roscosmos and Rosatom. As the former head of the state corporation "Rosatom" Sergei Kiriyenko noted, a nuclear-powered power plant makes it possible to reach Mars in one to one and a half months, providing the ability to maneuver and accelerate. 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, in 2012 a technical project was completed. According to the terms of reference, the nuclear power plant consists of two parts: the power unit itself, which includes a nuclear reactor with shadow radiation protection, a thermal to electrical energy converter 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 Mars lander. However, such a flight is a chance to take revenge in the race for the moon. And this hope is cherished, as I think, by our politicians and designers. Only our country has space ambitions that are not inferior to the United States. In addition, we have the technology, manufacturing bases and experience of victories in space.

If not for Russia, then the current human presence in space would have been significantly less. There would be no International Space Station built from our decades of experience building space stations.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 we drive fast. If there is political will, and economic growth in the country will provide funding for space programs, then we will be able to quickly collect all the necessary elements of the Martian expedition. We have experience in creating super-heavy missiles, and we also planned the construction of a new "super-heavy", 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 is in full swing, capable of delivering the Martian expedition to its destination in a short time. There is no doubt that we are the first in nuclear power. It is one thing to fly for 1.5 months, and another one and a half years. Less supplies, less damage to the health of astronauts and less unforeseen situations in flight.

But again, we have no landing systems for the Red Planet. And we are not friends with Mars, our flights to it often ended in failure. 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: probability 30 out of 100.


In July 2017, China unveiled plans to explore 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 moon of Jupiter.

In 2020, China has planned to send its rover to Mars, and around 2030 it hopes to deliver soil samples from Mars. But the success of these missions depends on the PRC's creation of the Changzheng-9 super-heavy rocket. The carrier being developed, comparable to the Saturn-5 rocket, will have to launch up to 133 tons of payload into a low reference orbit and up to 50 tons into a geostationary orbit. Its maiden 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 required for the test flight are currently being tested.


At one time, the chief engineer of the Chinese lunar program, Yu Weiren, said that the meaning of the Chinese lunar program is to develop research methods and technical solutions for the development of Mars. If China manages to send a man to the moon, then the next obvious target will be Mars. In addition, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) are developing a joint project to develop a satellite of our planet. Negotiations are under way on the construction of a "lunar village", which in the future may become a launching pad for launching an expedition to Mars.

Overtaking Russia and the United States on the way to Mars would be a major reputational success for China. It is possible that the leadership of the PRC still has such plans, but so far China is in the role of catching up. It's no secret that most of China's space technology comes from the USSR. But our Martian and manned lunar programs were not successful enough, therefore, in the study of the Red Planet of the PRC, we will have to rely only on ourselves. The United States, on the other hand, is doing its best to prevent space secrets from falling into the hands of China. And now the Celestial Empire does not have any technologies that can significantly bring the country closer to a flight to Mars.

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

China will take the lead and fly to Mars first: 30 out of 100 chance.

European Union

The Aurora project, a program of the European Space Agency for the study of the solar system, includes exploration of the Moon and Mars by 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 scheduled for 2024, and to Mars in 2033. Although it is worth noting, this part of the program has been questioned by the main member states of the European Space Agency, and it is possible that the entire Aurora program will be refocused only on robotic exploration of Mars.

Europe does not demonstrate ambition to independently visit 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 first on the Red Planet will be a European: the probability is 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 communication satellites into geostationary orbit and automatic interplanetary stations to the Moon and Mars. In 2013, the AMS "Mangalyan" was sent to Mars, designed to explore the planet from orbit. India has its own manned space program. Last summer, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its heaviest rocket to date, the GSLV-Mk III.


It is assumed that it will be used to launch the projected Indian Orbital Vehicle spacecraft into orbit. The 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, Indian President Abdul Kalam issued a statement in which he proposed that the United States send an American-Indian crew to Mars by 2050.

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

International expedition

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


We reviewed several planned space expedition projects, but in the entire history of astronautics there were many of them. But they all remained unfulfilled. The experience of cooperation in space suggests that large projects can only succeed together. An example of this is the International Space Station. And the United States is not ready, as we can see, to build a new lunar station on its own.


The flight of a person to another planet is a matter of all mankind, and not of the ambitions of one power. Only in conditions of opposition of systems was it possible to prove their superiority through victories in space. Yes, it was an incentive that justified the colossal costs, incredible efforts and the risks that the astronauts took. This race took us into space. A new message is needed now. A flight to Mars can serve as a unifying goal for all of humanity. It should be international and, most likely, it will be. We will join forces and send a joint expedition to Mars.


The United States, for example, will put elements of an expeditionary ship into orbit with a new super-heavy rocket SLS. The Orion spacecraft will deliver the astronauts to it. An interplanetary transport ship and a propulsion system that will deliver people to Mars will be created by Russia. We'll get to the Red Planet much faster if we get down to business together.

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

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