There is a lot of talk lately about when a human being might first set foot on a planet other than Earth. For most of the past half century, most people would have agreed that if and when that event happened, that astronaut would likely be from the United States. Now things don’t seem so clear. Budget cuts and changing political ideology are casting doubts about the future of NASA and what it might seek to achieve in the near and far future; this even though NASA has been working on a new rocket that takes the best of what was learned from the Saturn IV that carried people to the moon, and everything that came after, and is nearly ready to launch a test. There has been talk of building a base on the moon for building a different rocket that would reach for Mars. But as yet, a lot of that is still talk. In any event, if it does happen for NASA and the United States, the best guess is it wouldn’t be for at least twenty years, given where we are today.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have continued with steady progress in the space program. They’ve sent astronauts into orbit and have set goals for their own program which seem far more set in stone than anything we’ve had with the U.S. space program since President Kennedy set out our clear path to the moon. They think they can get to the moon before this decade is out, and then, shoot for Mars before the next is through. If successful, that would put a human being on the surface of Mars sometime before 2030.
But other countries aren’t standing still either. The Europeans who collective have more space experience than any other group or nation besides the U.S. and Russia, has had proponents suggesting that if they put their will into it, they might reach the moon far sooner than the Chinese are predicting, and there is precedent. When you consider where we were, and where we ended up in the 60’s, it seems conceivable that the Europeans could do something similar in a decade’s time. Though there is that decision and force of will involved that might be missing from their agenda.
Japan has also been busy ramping up their space expertise, and there is the occasional rumor that they might decide to get in the race to Mars as well, and if they do, they would certainly be one of the leading contenders, when you consider their impressive array of technical prowess. And they are no neophytes in space flights as they regularly send up rockets carrying satellites. If they decided to make it a national priority, there is little doubt they would be ready to launch a human payload perhaps as early as ten years from now.
Also on the list of possibilities are the Indians, who have made clear their own space exploration ambitions. Granted, their technical capabilities are not yet considered on a par with others, they are gaining ground rapidly as the Indian government has set aside an undisclosed amount of money for research and development of spacecraft.
And finally, there is Russia, a country that has logged more hours in space than all other nations combined. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints it doesn’t appear that they harbor much ambition for landing a man on Mars, but things could change, and they often do. If they do, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they put together a program with the goal of putting a man on Mars before the end of this decade, which would mean, on our about nine years from now. An achievement that would help erase the embarrassment of losing the race to the moon after they’d made a head start.
Thus, it appears likely that a human being, barring any unforeseen barrier, will set foot on Mars within the next thirty years, if not sooner.