Looking Back at Earth From the Vantage of the Mars Space-Race
Matthew Shindell on Our Shifting Relationship With the Red Planet
In the fall of 2020, three nations launched robotic explorers to Mars. The United States sent its fifth rover, Perseverance, the latest in an impressive line of successful spacecraft missions. China’s Tianwen 1 (Heavenly Questions) mission was launched as the Chinese space program’s second attempt to reach the planet, this time with an ambitious trio of orbiter, lander, and rover. And the United Arab Emirates’ Al-Amal (Hope) orbiter flew as the UAE’s first attempt. The history of Mars exploration—one in which missions are as likely to fail as not—says that Mars eats spacecraft. Remarkably, all of these missions arrived at Mars operational.
The 2020 launch window wasn’t a complete triumph. A fourth mission from the European Union and Russia didn’t make it to the launch-pad. The life-seeking rover, named in honor of the British crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, had to be postponed; faced with an already tight schedule exacerbated by a global pandemic, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos decided their joint mission could wait. When Russia invaded Ukraine in the spring of 2022, these plans were canceled altogether, leaving the EU’s rover without a ride to Mars.
Because Mars takes about twice as long as Earth to complete an orbit around the Sun, opportunities to send spacecraft to the red planet happen only roughly once every two years, when Earth overtakes it on the inside track and the two planets are near each other in their orbits, lined up with the Sun in an arrangement astronomers call “opposition.”
Not all oppositions are equally favorable—planetary orbits are elliptical, so the distance between Mars and Earth in opposition can differ dramatically. An opposition during perihelion (when Mars is closest to the Sun in its orbit) can nearly halve the distance between the two planets from 60- to 30-odd million miles (the precise numbers vary from century to century). These closer oppositions occur about once every 16 years, and the 2020 launch window was one of these encounters, with Mars only 38.57 million miles distant.We have gained important insights into what makes Earth an oasis in an otherwise hostile and possibly desolate solar system.
A close opposition makes it easier to send something to Mars, but it doesn’t make it cheap. Mars exploration always costs a good amount of money; development of Perseverance cost roughly $2.2 billion, along with an additional nearly quarter billion dollars for launch. Operating costs over the next five to ten years of the mission will cost millions more. One might ask—and many do—what is so valuable about Mars exploration?
Some will say we explore Mars because it’s in our nature: we have an innate drive to explore new places, and this has been an instrumental force in shaping our history on this planet. But I don’t find this answer very convincing. This narrative of Mars as the next frontier, essential to our progress as a species, tends to be uncritical of the actual history of European exploration and colonial expansion, or dismissive of its destructive and genocidal tendencies. It is also historically inaccurate. For most of human history, our interest in Mars had little to do with exploration. It has had much more to do with how we perceived ourselves, our world, and our connection to Mars.
Even today, when we can legitimately say we are exploring the surface of Mars, we do not do this simply for the sake of exploration. The exploration of the solar system over the past 60 years has contributed to advances in knowledge about Earth’s history, the processes that shaped it, and its likely future.
In its study of one of our nearest neighbors in the so-called habitable zone, Mars science has played a key role in advancing knowledge about Earth. As we have learned more about Mars and the geological path it has taken, we have gained important insights into what makes Earth an oasis in an otherwise hostile and possibly desolate solar system, as well as what changes might put life as we know it here at risk.
But, of course, it’s not just about the science. Chances are, if you watch television or movies, that you’ve already noticed ways in which Mars exploration gets connected to multiple narratives concerning the human future. What we learn about planetary processes through our study of Mars may help us better understand and even combat problems like climate change. I believe that any responsible approach to Mars exploration should prioritize the development of knowledge and technologies that will help mitigate climate change, even if indirectly.
But in other increasingly popular visions of the role Mars might play in saving us from ourselves, Mars and the technologies we might use to make parts or the entire planet habitable for humans become an escape hatch through which we—or some privileged few—can be saved. One such proposal advocates that Mars should be terraformed (transformed on a planetary scale) into a second Earth, where humans will be protected from any humanmade catastrophe that befalls Earth.
In my view, this is like raising the Titanic because you need a boat. Maybe it can be done, but is it the best solution? If we want to save the humans of Earth, shouldn’t we focus on Earth? There may be good reasons to terraform Mars, and benefits to becoming a multiplanet species, but it shouldn’t stop us from directing our resources to solving climate change. It would be ridiculous to think that making an uninhabitable planet habitable would be easier than preserving life on our own.
Mars exploration is part of another more immediate legacy: that of the mobilization of science and technology during the Cold War. Our first robotic and human expeditions beyond Earth were conducted as part of a Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.
These missions were operated as civilian programs, but the technologies developed to launch spacecraft were essentially the same as those developed for ballistic missiles. And while we call it a “cold” war because it somehow never became a hot or explosive conflict, the truth is that it was far from bloodless and had real consequences for the world we live in today. It shaped postcolonial relationships between the global north and south, cost lives and political stability in South America and Asia, and left the toxic detritus of atomic testing and weapons proliferation.
Even today, the technologies we use to study Mars are connected not only to the global communications networks so central to our everyday lives, but also to dark networks of spying, surveillance, and military readiness.
To further unpack the reasons why we go to Mars, let’s very briefly examine the motivations of the three missions launched in 2020. For the moment, let’s set aside the scientific questions these missions are meant to answer.
When a rover lands on Mars, it does demonstrate the incredible feats nations can accomplish when government funding, political will, and technological know-how are aligned with national priorities. Among other things, it demonstrates an impressive level of technocratic ability and organizational power. For the United States, sending missions to Mars has typically been an occasion for great fanfare. These occasions are by design meant for global consumption, as are the events surrounding arrival at Mars and the descent to the surface.
During the Cold War, these moments were one way of providing a civilian face for space technology and infrastructure while demonstrating the capabilities of these technologies through peaceful means. Even though the Cold War context for space exploration no longer exists, these displays of technoscientific gymnastics have not become irrelevant. The United States continues to use space as an arena in which to show off its economic and technological might, to build alliances, and to compete with adversaries. These moments are still used to legitimate political claims of global leadership—in space and on Earth.
For NASA, the agency tasked with carrying out these public spectacles, two endeavors have proved to be particularly awe-inspiring to the public at home and the world at large: human spaceflight and Mars rover missions. Both of these activities are highly visible and allow NASA to participate in (and become central to) conversations about American character, technological skill, innovation, and human progress.
In addition to the impressive technology of the robotic rover itself, Perseverance carried an untried technology to Mars: a small autonomous rotorcraft named Ingenuity meant to prove the feasibility of airborne exploration. The Perseverance mission is tied to a sequence of missions that will, if carried through, return samples from Mars—a goal that both planetary scientists and human exploration advocates have wanted since the 1970s.
It also carries spacesuit materials exposed to the Martian elements and an experimental technology demonstration that pulls oxygen out of the planet’s thin carbon dioxide atmosphere to prove that humans on Mars could generate fuel for the trip back to Earth. These experiments allow NASA to present itself as leading the way toward eventual human exploration of Mars.Viewed through a geopolitical lens, it is a type of highly publicized technological flexing— a gun show.
On February 9, 2021, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country to reach Mars when the Hope probe successfully entered into orbit around the red planet. Seven years earlier, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, and Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, announced that the Emirates Mars Mission would be developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), working in conjunction with international partners and funded by the UAE Space Agency.
The Cold War trained us to think of spaceflight—especially ambitious Mars missions—as something a nation does to signal that it has developed a “space economy” and possesses the expertise and technological capabilities to build and operate rockets, missiles, and spy satellites. Viewed through a geopolitical lens, it is a type of highly publicized technological flexing— a gun show. But this was not quite the case for the UAE.
Emirati engineers designed and built the Hope spacecraft in Boulder, Colorado, in collaboration with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, with support from Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley. Working side by side with LASP engineers, Hope team members learned skills that will serve them in later missions. Once Hope was completed, a Ukrainian transport plane delivered it to Dubai for testing. Finally, Hope flew to Japan for launch, where the UAE arranged with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) for launch on a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket from Japan’s Tanegashima Island launch facility.
The UAE has made clear that while it’s looking forward to doing some good Martian science, this is not the primary reason why the young nation spent $200 million on building and launching the spacecraft. “It’s not about reaching Mars,” said Hope project manager Omran Sharaf. “It’s about getting the ball rolling and … changing the mind-set”—shifting UAE priorities from oil to science and technology development that will serve the country in a post-fossil fuel economy.
The main goal of the mission is to plant the seeds for a science and technology workforce that can build a future for the country. It was a signal to the world, and even more importantly to the people of the UAE, that new things are coming.
When China’s Zhurong rover rolled out onto the surface of Mars on May 21, 2021, China became only the second nation in the world to successfully operate a rover on the red planet. Compared to the UAE’s Mars mission, China’s orbiter, lander, and rover have been interpreted as signals of a more traditional type. As US astronaut Pamela Melroy stated in a congressional hearing after the Zhurong landing, “China has made their goals very clear, to take away space superiority from the United States.” She warned, “We are right to be concerned.”
Also in 2021, China began construction of a new orbiting space station and announced plans to send taikonauts (the Chinese equivalent of cosmonauts or astronauts) to the orbiting construction site and to the Moon. Only months earlier, on December 16, 2020, samples returned from the Moon by the Chang’e-5 lunar probe were recovered in the grasslands of Siziwang Banner in the Ulanqab region of Inner Mongolia. All of these activities combined do seem to speak to a nation that wants to be taken seriously as a space power.
While the United States and China do not currently find themselves in a “space race” like what characterized the first period of space exploration, they nonetheless do find themselves competing for influence as the new landscape of international and commercial spaceflight takes shape, as they are likewise gripped in an economic and political competition on the ground. Both nations would like to be able to attract and lead international partners in establishing norms for low-Earth-orbit and lunar operations.
Mars exploration has become increasingly global in the post-Cold War period. The European Union, Russia, and India have all flown successful missions to Mars in the twenty-first century, and even more nations are involved in spaceflight more generally. But none of these has typically been perceived to be a threat to US space leadership.
This highlights the fact that space politics are intimately connected to politics on the ground. Space is a place for peaceful cooperation—except when it’s an arena for establishing geopolitical hegemony. The US reaction to China’s recent achievements in space also highlights the importance of space in earthly affairs, as space is the location of much of the infrastructure that makes twenty-first century military and civilian operations possible.
We have gotten only a taste of how and why robotic Mars exploration has become an endeavor that, while not necessarily the defining project of our era, is nonetheless considered important enough that multiple nations feel the need to pour large amounts of money into Mars missions. These examples speak to the political and cultural significance of Mars, and also to the general importance of space in our lives. Most of the time, the presence of space in our lives is unseen. Mars exploration and the politics surrounding it help to make our connection to space and space technologies visible.
“The story which we are about to read has not been written by man, but, as the poet tells us, by the Creator himself; and therefore we can trust absolutely the truthfulness of the record. It is a plain unvarnished account in which man has no hand. …” Thus began the introduction to Henry Neville Hutchinson’s 1890 book of popular geology, The Autobiography of the Earth.
Within its pages, though Hutchinson’s aim was to summarize and make understandable the evidence and theories of nineteenth-century geologists, he claimed, “The Earth is its own Biographer, and keeps its diary with the impartiality of a recording machine.” This book about Mars makes no such pretensions. Planets do preserve and erase elements of their own histories, but it is always humans who interpret and tell this history.
Mars is an object that has rarely spoken for itself, although it has at times been treated as animate. It has been with us from our earliest written records, and it will likely be with us until our end. But what it is, what it has been, and what it will be are not necessarily the same thing.
The Mars I am interested in is Mars as we have known it, as we have described it, and as we have defined its importance to our world and our lives. This book is thus based, after a fashion, on the secondhand reports of the people who have mingled with Mars and who have made Mars central to their cultural projects. My guide in attempting to construct this portrait of Mars has been to attempt to follow the people who have cared about Mars, to ask why it was important to them and how it fit into their larger worldview, and to try to see what they saw.
In one poignant moment in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1992 novel Red Mars, Sax Russell, one of the scientists who has traveled to Mars as a member of the first human expedition, declares to his compatriots, “The beauty of Mars exists in the human mind. … Without the human presence it is just a collection of atoms, no different than any other random speck of matter in the universe.” It is humans who understand Mars and give it meaning, he insists:
All our centuries of looking up at the night sky and watching it wander through the stars. All those nights of watching it through the telescopes, looking at a tiny disk trying to see canals in the albedo changes. All those dumb sci-fi novels with their monsters and maidens and dying civilizations. And all the scientists who studied the data, or got us here. That’s what makes Mars beautiful. Not the basalt and the oxides.
Mars is presented as a natural object with a past that can be deciphered by scientists and their instruments, but with no history other than that which humans have given it. History, after all, is not the past but a way of talking about who we were. In this book I am just as concerned with who people thought they were—how they related to their universe—as I am in what ideas they had about Mars.
My task of getting beyond the basalt and the oxides hasn’t always been easy. In every time period and culture I’ve examined, humans bestowed meaning, qualities, and characteristics upon Mars. But the planet’s popularity wasn’t always what it is today.
For most of human history, Mars was only one member of a family of planets and stars whose significance came from their activities taken as a whole. In daily life, the Sun, Moon, and sometimes Venus were given special significance; these heavenly objects could be tied to regular natural and ritual cycles throughout the year.
Because of its nearness to Earth during oppositions, Mars could become exceptionally bright and red and then seem to reverse course in the sky. Its brightness and its hue depended upon how close it was to the Sun during opposition, and early humans no doubt took note of these variations. Events like this gave Mars some dramatic significance.
Venus—with its ability to appear either ahead of or behind the Sun as a morning or evening star, and to do so in regular cycles—was generally regarded with more interest. Mars, meanwhile, earned itself an impressive amount of distrust with its inconsistency as an occasional bad omen.
Within the past two hundred years, Mars has become central to the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s an underdog story if ever there was one. And it is one intimately connected to our own changing conceptions of who and what we are. Our understanding of Mars has changed dramatically at different times in human history. Humans have seen and interacted with Mars in different ways at different times and places.
This relationship with Mars has been defined by ideas and practices related to our understanding of the world and our place in it. Human definitions of Mars have been connected to definitions of ourselves, and understandings of our own significance. The outline of this story, as I will tell it, is as follows.
From For the Love of Mars. Used with the permission of the publisher, University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Shindell.