Who Will Win the Race to Mars?

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
The human race are going to the Red Planet. At least, that's the plan! But with so many star-gazing eyes now set on Mars, who will man the first mission to get there? SpaceX and Boeing have been racing to Mars for years, with Elon Musk continually claiming that he can beat NASA to our nearest neighbouring planet. But are SpaceX really ready for an unprecedented voyage into space and the solar system?

Who Will Win the Race to Mars?

It’s been a long time since the human race has landed on a celestial body. Apollo 17 was our last manned mission to the Moon, and that was nearly fifty years ago. Now, having seemingly satisfied the itch to explore our nearest neighbor, we are looking ever-outwards to our next destination – Mars. But who will be the first to get there? And why go to Mars in the first place?

Like the space race of the ‘60s, a major motivation for getting to Mars is the respect and diplomatic clout that the achievement could earn. For whichever company or country sets foot there first, it’d see them plant their flag in the deep reaches of space, proving themselves as pioneering powerhouses in science, technology, economics, ambition, and political leadership. Equally, another major reason, as with the Apollo missions, is exploration and unprecedented discovery. And then comes the third incentive – and we’re talking WAY down the line – colonization. With Mars seeming so similar to Earth in so many regards, it has already been billed as a prime candidate should the human race start planet-hopping.

There are various countries currently embattled in the so-called ‘Race to Mars’, with the United States and China figuring as frontrunners. China is currently in the midst of becoming a major space and technological power, having invested hundreds of millions into space technologies and scientific missions. And it’s expected that those state-funded initiatives will inspire private enterprises to blossom, too. While this financial backing still hasn’t exceeded NASA’s funding, various experts are tipping China to soon outpace the US within this generation’s unique space race. NASA has cut numerous programs in recent years, whilst China has been developing new technologies and expanding its reach – aiming for a Chinese rover on Mars by 2022, and humans on the Red Planet in the 2040s.

Naturally, by having such lofty goals, China – like America and Russia before it – continually confirms its status as a global superpower. According to Wu Ji, the director general of the National Space Science Center, “nothing should stop China” in its pursuit of space travel. But, while that’s clearly true, it’s also possible that the ever-determined nation has actually entered the fray far too late to be the first country on Mars – with some suggesting that that distinction will, once again, go to the United States.

But the big picture within the US is nowhere near as simple as it once was, with government-backed NASA standing head, shoulders and most of its midriff above everyone else. Today’s race really centres on two visionary brands – SpaceX and Boeing.

SpaceX is, of course, the private aerospace manufacturing company founded by Elon Musk, who in recent years has become one of the most high-profile names in space and technologies development. And, like the blockbuster supervillains he’s constantly compared with, Musk is using his eye-watering riches to see his enormous and potentially Earth-changing ambitions come to life. SpaceX is currently developing the BFR, also known as the Big Falcon Rocket. The BFR is set to be a fully reusable vehicle, capable of long-duration spaceflight and multiplanetary transport. Before taking on its current name, the BFR had been referred to as the Mars Colonial Transporter as part of the Interplanetary Transport System, which are probably both more in-fitting with its ultimate goal. The BFR is still under construction, with sub-orbital testing expected to begin in 2019. By 2022, SpaceX intends to send cargo vehicles to Mars to study potential hazards and place the necessary infrastructure for future missions. Then, according to its most confident estimates, it fully intends to have humans walking, talking and working on Mars by 2024. On a SpaceX schedule, full Martian colonization could happen in just one hundred years.

However, critics have continually attacked Musk and SpaceX, calling their plans highly unrealistic and far too ambitious. Some naysayers point to the temperature on Mars – which can drop to minus 120 degrees Celsius at night – being too uninhabitable for humans. Similarly, Mars’ atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide, so colonizers would always need to wear a spacesuit. And then there’s the radiation, with the Red Planet potentially subjected to deadly solar flares. According to Andrew Coates of University College London, astronauts on a round-trip to Mars with our current technology would be exposed to 4x the acceptable career limits of radiation. For Musk’s detractors, the tech required to sustain life in this environment just won’t be here in time for full colonization in the 22nd century.

So, while SpaceX may succeed in placing a person on Mars by the mid-2020s, there appear to be simply far too many engineering hurdles to overcome before a ‘big move’ can be carried out. Not that that’s stopped the forward-thinking company from stealing all the headlines, or from keeping the concept of a manned Mars mission in the public eye.

However, while SpaceX has been the one boldly and brazenly banging the drum, Boeing is clearly another major player jostling for position. And they may in fact be the ones to beat.

Boeing and NASA are currently teaming up for the Space Launch System, an expendable launch vehicle intended for a crewed mission to Mars. Boeing is currently NASA’s prime contractor for the rocket, collecting roughly $60 billion from the Agency for research and development. And while details are a little scarce, both Boeing and NASA intend to employ the rocket for a manned journey sometime in the 2030s. It’s a decade after Elon Musk plans to have his own crew on our neighbouring planet, but there’s a growing consensus within the industry that Boeing and NASA’s timetable is far more realistic and doable. The Space Launch System is currently in its final stages of development and is fully expected to begin test runs in 2019.

Investors are generally recommended to bet on Boeing beating SpaceX to Mars. Perhaps Elon Musk’s reputation precedes him to some extent, as his critics point out his apparently bad track record for overdelivering on promises and underdelivering on results. There’s also the ever-fluctuating financial landscapes with other Musk-owned companies, including Tesla, which may trigger warning signs for SpaceX backers. Meanwhile, Boeing can easily afford to spend their cash on space research and development, making them by far the safer bet.

Other signs point to Boeing’s eventual success, too. Aside from their current economic strength as a business, Boeing has the power of NASA behind them. SpaceX does have some links through its missions to the ISS, but that’s all. And, of course, Boeing also has a long track record of aerospace expertise and success. It has proven itself time and time again, while the doubters continue to drum at Musk’s door.

That’s not to say that we should all rule out the proverbial ‘new kid on the block’. Space travel needs a team willing and ready to go beyond what was previously possible. And Elon Musk and co. can clearly talk the talk. But can they truly contend with the clout of NASA, Boeing, or even Beijing on cosmic catch-up? If SpaceX really does rock up on Mars in 2024, it’d surely be one of the greatest feats in modern history. But the sensible speculator still backs Boeing. There are simply too many question marks, unknowns, and unproven ambitions hanging over its competitors. Whatever happens, this race is definitely heating up!