Nations and private companies may be dreaming of Mars, but their aspirations remain firmly grounded in the politics of Earth.
This week, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX won their bids to develop space taxis, which will be used to take US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2017. The larger goal, however, is for SpaceX and Boeing to help develop technology that will ship people to Mars. In the words of NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who delivered the news in a televised address:
"We’ll conduct missions that will each set their own impressive roster of firsts. First crew to visit and take samples of an asteroid, first crew to fly beyond the orbit of the moon, perhaps the first crew to grow its own food in space — all of which will set us up for humanity’s next giant leap: the first crew to touch down and take steps on the surface of Mars."
The U.S. is not the only nation reaching for Mars. Back in 2011, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA) said they would work together on a manned mission to the red planet. Russian news agency RIA Novosti wrote at the time:
"Speaking to reporters at an air show near Moscow on Wednesday, ESA head Jean-Jacques Dordain said ESA and Russia's Roskosmos space agency would ‘carry out the first flight to Mars together.’"
The call for collaboration extends beyond the two agencies. In January of this year, representatives from 30 countries met to discuss plans for a manned mission to Mars. The State Department issued minutes from the International Space Exploration Forum, that stressed the importance of working together:
"Discussions highlighted that many of the spaceflight achievements of the past half-century would not have been possible without international cooperation… Currently, working together, nations are successfully leveraging their strengths and executing multiple robotic and human space missions with broad societal benefits. Nations are coordinating efforts to better understand our planet and to expand our reach to a variety of solar system destinations, including asteroids, the Moon, and Mars."
The language suggests that the global politics of Earth could dissipate on Mars. But Tuesday’s announcement tells a different story.
In his speech, Bolden made no pretense about NASA's immediate goal — namely, disengaging from Roscosmos:
"From day one, the Obama Administration has made it clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space. Thanks to the leadership of President Obama and the hard work of our NASA and industry teams, today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017."
The sentiment was repeated:
"This will fulfill the commitment President Obama made to return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil and end our sole reliance on the Russians."
More than once:
"We received numerous proposals from companies throughout the aerospace industry. Highly qualified, American companies – united in their desire to return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil – competed to serve this nation and end our reliance on Russia."
The Cold War-like language aligns with recent Cold War-like politics. NASA's reliance on Roscosmos to reach the ISS has been a point of contention for some time now, especially since the U.S. started slapping sanctions on Russia over its behavior in Ukraine. U.S. space taxis mean that if relations between Washington and Moscow continue to deteriorate, Russia won’t be able to shut the U.S. out of the ISS — something the Kremlin has said it will do.
Another reason for a U.S. push towards space independence is strictly commercial. Private companies are entering the space race — not only SpaceX, but Google and Facebook, and Amazon, as well. Mars One, which says it will establish a Martian colony in 2024, noted on its website that it "has visited several major aerospace companies around the world to discuss its plan." If the U.S. wants a piece of the Mars pie, it must be able to compete for it on a global level. Federal investments in SpaceX and Boeing — to the tune of $6.8 billion — could make sure that happens.
For now, however, life in space remains relatively unencumbered by politics down here.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.