• Dr. Timothy Smith

The Deep Space Race: Who Is Getting to Mars First?


Pictured Above: Pre-launch rendition of the Phoenix Mars Probe

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

December 1972 marked the last time that NASA put an astronaut on the Moon. Following decades of human-crewed flights to the International Space Station in low earth orbit, NASA has received a directive to return to the Moon and to prepare for eventual travel to Mars. The current goal is to once again put an astronaut on the Moon by 2024. While this is an interesting and exciting prospect, what would be our most likely timeline to get to that goal?

In the forty-plus years since Apollo 17, the last moon-shot, several presidents such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama have promised to return to the Moon and beyond, but funding and a clear mission have derailed any specific programs. However, with the recent success of the first privately funded mission to the International Space Station in late May 2020 by SpaceX, and the declaration by the government of a goal to land the first woman and next man on the Moon in the next four years, space exploration looks to have renewed direction and vigor.

NASA articulated a plan named Artemis to reach the Moon and, eventually, Mars, beginning with an effort with international and commercial partners to build a sustainable presence on the Moon. (NASA). Artemis will involve the building and deployment of new technologies such as the Space Launch System or SLS. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA. It is designed to carry supplies and spacecrafts to the Moon and beyond. In addition to SLS, NASA will build Orion, the next-generation space ship that builds on new technologies to allow for deep-space work and travel. The Artemis plan also includes the development of habitable stations on the Moon to test new technologies in preparation for missions to Mars.

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, also has plans for a mission to Mars that will depend on a powerful rocket dubbed Starship powered by methane and carbon dioxide based on the reusable rocket technology he has developed. The reusable rockets performed spectacularly, landing with pinpoint accuracy on Earth after successfully powering a mission to the international space station (SpaceX) His Mars mission will use Starship to travel into low earth orbit and refuel there to prepare for the 140 million mile trip to the red planet. The rocket will eventually land on Mars and plans to use Martian resources such as water and carbon dioxide to refuel for the journey back to Earth, creating a viable commute between Earth and next closest potentially habitable planet in the solar system.

Another billionaire appears to have designs on a Mars voyage too. Jeff Bezos, who founded and ran Amazon, has named his planned Mars mission Blue Origin. Before a Mars mission even starts, Blue Origin has already been in collaboration with Draper Labs, Lockheed Martin, and others to develop a lunar landing and takeoff module to first go to the Moon.

The race to Mars not only involves the great NASA space agency but now includes major consortia of private businesses, most notably SpaceX driven by Elon Musk and Blue Origin powered by Amazon. Talk about a return to the Moon in four years and even a trip to Mars by 2030 has many dreaming of a new era in space exploration, and many administrations have hyped the further crewed exploration of the Moon and Mars. However, the funding and clarity of mission have lagged. In an article for GeekWire, looking at the odds of who will get to Mars first, Alan Boyle cites an oddsmaker at MyBookie.com that considers SpaceX as the most likely to get to Mars first with Blue Origin in second place. (GeekWire). Interestingly, the oddsmaker has NASA in a distant sixth place between Russia and China. Many different public and private organizations have pledged to go back to the Moon and beyond to Mars. Still, they must clear many technical and financial hurdles before a mission to Mars becomes a reality.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.