A 50-million-mile target has been set, a straight spaceshot with a clear (though distant) goal. But who will make the first footprint on Mars?
Though both Russia and China have put men in space and say they hope someday to set foot on the moon, the United States remains the only country to do so. Yet Russia and China and some other countries have also publicly articulated a vision for manned space exploration that includes a more distant target: Mars.
Now reports of a new deep-space satellite suggest that China intends to launch toward Mars -- and as soon as 2013. It's too early to call it a race, says Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs in the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. But China's Martian orbiter may indicate a second destination for the country's space program.
"It's natural that if they are serious about space exploration (which, it is clear, they are), Mars is a challenge beyond the Moon. Just as it is for us," Hertzfeld told FoxNews.com in an e-mail.
The new project will make use of technologies developed for China's first lunar satellite, launched in 2007, according to a report from the Xinhua news agency. The plan was based on research conducted by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), said Huang Jiangchuan, an expert at a forum on China's space technology.
He described the technologies likely to be used -- including ones to boost the satellite's payload capability and exploration accuracy -- as "already quite advanced," according to the report.
Hertzfeld nevertheless cautioned that the differences between the 1960s and the 21st century make for a very different competitive landscape. There are more countries now with space capabilities and access to space; there is much more cooperation among nations; and the costs are astronomical.
"I think it's too early to tell if we will engage in a true 'race' to Mars as we did with the USSR to the moon," he said.
But the official messages from governments seem to tell a different story, with the U.S., India, China, and Russia all declaring that they hope to reach Mars at around the same time.
"By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth," President Obama said this year when he announced America's new goal's for NASA. "And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."
But will we be first? India has plans of its own for the Red Planet. Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) chairman K. Radhakrishnan said Monday that Mars was on its radar as well.
"A mission to Mars, for several reasons, has become a priority for us," Radhakrishnan said -- though he admitted that India would not build the lander that would take its Chandrayan 2 program to the surface. That vehicle is being developed by Russia, he explained, although a rover "is currently being fabricated in Indian laboratories."
Nevertheless, India has publicly stated that it intends to go to Mars by 2030.
So the race is on.Yet many rules and parameters governing the battle remain unresolved, Hertzfeld said.
"If there is a race, the major and minor players are yet to be determined," he told FoxNews.com. "And unlike the Cold War space race, it may not be one to show off technological superiority -- but one that is focused on partnerships for resource needs (terrestrially, such as oil and food), and/or political standing. Commercial interests on celestial bodies would be a possibility, but a longer term one."
Hertzfeld noted the key issue standing before the U.S. and NASA when it comes to reaching Mars: money. And he asked: "Will either the U.S. or China (or someone else) commit the large amount of capital over a long period of time to these projects?"
NASA is currently coordinating with a variety of commercial businesses to facilitate manned missions to Mars, including SpaceX, the United Launch Alliance (a partnership that includes Boeing Corp.), Orbital Sciences Corp., and others. Which one will successfully build our next-generation rocket for manned spaceflight remains a much debated question -- and representatives from NASA did not respond to multiple requests from FoxNews.com for comments for this story.
NASA isn't resting on its laurels, however, or leaving the entire mission up to private enterprise. The space agency has given the green light for development of a 2013 Mars orbiter mission to investigate the mystery of how Mars lost much of its atmosphere, a program called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) mission.
In addition, the space agency plans yet another in its series of Martian rovers, this one a science laboratory called Curiosity intended to collect soil samples and rock cores and analyze them for organic compounds. NASA has just installed a webcam to let the public watch Curiosity's assembly and testing. But months of work remain before the car-sized rover is ready for launch from Cape Canaveral.
"The launch period for Curiosity (the Mars Science Laboratory mission) is fall 2011. The specific launch period is Nov. 25 to Jan. 18, 2011," said Guy Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
NASA has sent a half dozen probes to Mars already, including the well known rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed there in 2004 and have sent back a wealth of data. In addition, the Phoenix lander hit the planet on May 25, 2008, on a mission to explore the planet's icy soil, and the Reconnaissance Orbiter has been capturing pictures of Mars since 2006. Earlier craft Express and Odyssey also gleaned knowledge of our distant neighbor.
In fact, rather than a race, NASA characterizes relations with China as friendly. NASA administrator Charles Bolden just returned from a trip to China that he credited with laying a foundation for future dialogue and cooperation between the two space programs.
"Although my visit did not include consideration of any specific proposals for future cooperation, I believe that my delegation's visit to China increased mutual understanding on the issue of human spaceflight and space exploration, which can form the basis for further dialogue and cooperation in a manner that is consistent with the national interests of both of our countries," Bolden said in an Oct. 25 statement.
If dates slip and none of these programs succeed in putting a man on Mars, the first footprint on the Red Planet may end up surprising everyone. Russia has announced plans to return to space -- using monkeys to pilot its rockets.
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.