Space Race 2.0: China set to beat NASA to Mars by 20 years – US mission ‘infeasible’

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Since the dawn of the space age more than 60 years ago, scientists have been brewing up plans to send a crewed mission to Earth’s second-closest neighbour. Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who played a pivotal role in the success of the Apollo programme, famously envisioned in 1948 that such a mission could be possible by 1965. His vision never materialised and it was not until 1969 that humans landed on the Moon, but plans are in motion to get to the Red Planet within the next 20 years.

However, many experts fear that poor management, inadequate budgets and unrealistic expectations will prevent NASA from reaching Mars anytime soon.

At the same time, the US space agency has to compete with the ambitions of China’s space programme, which has made considerable advances in recent years.

Most recently, NASA had been instructed by former president Donald Trump to land humans on Mars by 2033.

The date was enshrined in law in 2017 with the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017.

But in his book, Mission to Mars: A New Era of Rover and Spacecraft Discovery on the Red Planet, geologist Larry Crumpler has argued that this target is unlikely to ever materialise.

This is based on a 2019 report by the Institute for Defence Analyses, which stated a “2033 departure date for a Mars orbital mission is infeasible under all budget scenarios and technology development and testing schedules”.

The same report noted a 2035 date might be possible if NASA’s annual budget is hiked, but even then complications and delays were likely.

Dr Crumpler, who has worked with NASA on the agency’s planetary exploration missions, wrote: “Moreover, the development would likely impact planned lunar missions and would require less stringent ‘human health’ considerations, in other words, would be more dangerous.

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“By the reckoning of the Institute for Defence Analyses document, it was more likely to be 2037 before such a mission could take place and that 2039 was more realistic due to likely budget issues over the course of development.”

NASA’s plans are further complicated by the pandemic and a lack of political and financial commitment to the mission.

The space agency was already forced to push back its return to the Moon under the Artemis lunar programme, citing delays caused by Covid and drawn-out litigation.

Dr Crumpler wrote: “With every year that clicks past, that date is advanced another year.

“And as the world recovers from the economic impact of a global pandemic, one could easily envision another decade passing before the starting gun could be fired in the race for Mars.

“So 2050 or beyond is sounding more possible if not probable.”

China, meanwhile, has set its sights on sending humans to Mars by 2033 and, if recent accomplishments are anything to go buy, the nation is in a strong position to do so.

Earlier this summer, Wang Xiaojun, head of the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, outlines the country’s ambitious plans.

This came just weeks after China joined a very prestigious club of countries that have landed rovers on Mars.

The Zhurong rover has been exploring the Red Planet since landing in May 2021.

President Xi Jinping hailed the mission’s success and said it marked another great accomplishment for China’s rapidly expanding space programme.

He added: “Thanks to your courage in face of challenges and pursuit of excellence, China is now among the leading countries in planetary exploration.”

And 2033 only marks a beginning for China – the country has earmarked 2035, 2037, 2041 and 2043 for additional missions.

China is presently in the process of building its very own space station, Tiangong, as part of the “Third Step” in the China Manned Space Programme.

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