Red Flag on the Red Planet: China's Great Leap Marsward?

People have speculated for well over a century about setting foot on Mars, but is it likely to happen?

We know that in prehistoric times, numerous groups of hominids ventured out of Africa into unknown lands at least once.  All eventually died out, except for one: our ancestors, homo sapiens.  Countless lives would later be lost by descendants of these ancient migrants as they trekked through uncharted wilderness or set sail on vast oceans in flimsy wooden craft.  Today, people die every year while driving racecars or climbing mountains.

We seem to be hardwired for activities that involve risks beyond those of everyday necessity.  Add this to our innate curiosity, and it's no longer a question of whether we will go to Mars, but of who will be the first to try.

Unfortunately, human beings are perhaps the worst space explorers imaginable: delicate and high-maintenance.  Think of how much oxygen, water, and food just one person needs to survive for any length of time.  And even if only a brief stay on Mars is planned, these essentials and the spacecraft's life support systems must sustain the crew over the entire expedition, which, realistically, would last at least three to four years.  (Two of those years would necessarily be spent loitering around Mars until the Earth was in the right position to rendezvous with the returning spacecraft when it reached Earth's orbit.)

Building such a spacecraft will no doubt be an expensive proposition -- and many Americans begrudge even today's modest spending on space exploration, insisting that these monies should go to earthly causes they consider more worthy.  President Obama evidently agrees, citing cost as the reason for having dissolved the space shuttle program only a few months ago; all astronauts must now pay handsomely to commute to and from the International Space Station in Russia's Soyuz TMA, an updated version of the rocket-borne craft first flown by the Soviet Union back in 1966.

Then there is the risk factor.  The near-tragedy of Apollo 13 in 1970 demonstrated just how helpless and alone a crippled spacecraft is once it leaves Earth's orbit.  The crew of a Mars-bound spacecraft disabled by malfunction, or by something external like collision with space debris, would almost certainly be doomed.  And while robotic space probes have built-in backups for all of their major systems, humans don't: an astronaut afflicted with a life-threatening illness or injury en route to another world would be unlikely to make it home alive.

As if the actual dangers of space travel weren't real enough, the media feeds Americans a steady diet of irrational scares concocted by self-serving alarmist groups -- many of whom, both domestic and foreign, aim to undermine American capitalism and industry by demonizing the science and technology that make these possible.  As a result, American society is becoming increasingly risk-averse, fearful, and mistrustful of science and technology.  Not surprisingly, public enthusiasm for America's space program is at an all-time low.

There is, however, one emergent economic giant whose leaders have little regard for cost, risk, or public sentiment (whether domestic or foreign): the People's Republic of China.  This immense nation, home to almost one fifth of the world's population, is starting to flex its technological and industrial muscles and is anxious to assert itself as a global superpower.  Moreover, China's totalitarian government single-mindedly pursues any goal it sets for the nation, and its people have a long history of perseverance in the face of misfortune and loss of life.

On December 29, China released a white paper outlining its near-future goals in space.  Writing for Investor's Business Daily, Andrew Malcolm notes that these plans include China's own space station (already partially assembled in Earth orbit) and manned lunar landings by the end of the decade.  Meanwhile, President Obama has scuttled his predecessor's project to establish a manned scientific outpost on the Moon; as America's space program withers, China's thrives.

Humanity's historical record indicates that a manned landing on Mars is inevitable, regardless of the risks and costs involved -- and should the Chinese nation commit itself to such a project, the first flag unfurled by a human being on the Red Planet could indeed itself be red.

Zoran Pazameta is director of the Eastern Connecticut University Wickware Planetarium