Mars: the Red Hot Planet

Article published on March 8, 2004
community published
Article published on March 8, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Europe didn’t discover water on Mars, the US did. The Old Continent has one more chance to get its name into the history books of space exploration - being the first to set foot on Mars.

‘George Bush has announced his intention to send the first man to Mars’. This quotation may appear to be recent, but it is in fact from 1989. George Bush Jr. is once again following in his father’s footsteps, having led the second part of the Iraqi war. And he’s doing so in the middle of an election campaign because, like the Gulf, Mars sells. Finding life in the Martian subsoil will, however, prove more difficult than finding dictators in the Iraqi subsoil.

Mars, dramatically named after the god of war, is provoking a battle of its own to see who will be the first to find water, if it exists at all. On the 18th of January Mars Express, a project of the European Space Agency (ESA), found ice on Mars. The Old Continent has succeeded in marketing this ‘discovery’ as an exclusively European victory.

Europe, the continent with no history

Russia sent the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) and the US the first man to the moon (Neil Armstrong in 1969). Europe, pretty much a nonentity as far as space history goes, wants to win the gold medal in the race for finding water on Mars. Unfortunately, way back in December 2000, scientists working for the American Mars Global Surveyor announced their discovery of ancient sea beds on Mars (1). And in January 2001 researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) suggested that there could be water on Mars after studies carried out on a Martian meteorite. Then in May 2002 the North-American Mars Odyssey discovered water deposits (2). And, as if that wasn’t enough, in 1996 Bill Clinton presented meteorite ALH84001 as proof that water had at some time existed on Mars (3).

But, apparently, for Europe America’s discoveries are already old news and Europe’s (psychological) supremacy on the issue of Mars has led it to put forward some courageous proposals. They are to launch manned flights to Mars, under the Aurora project. In 2024 they plan to send the first European to the moon. Following this first step, in around 2030 the first European will land on Mars.

But as far as this project is concerned, Europe is no ‘United States’. Germany isn’t participating in the Aurora project because ‘the cost of the operation bears no relation to the risks’.

Mass immigration to Mars

For his part, George W. Bush has announced the return of American astronauts to the moon from 2015. A lunar base will provide the platform for a manned mission to Mars in around 2030. Quite apart from wanting victory over democrat John Kerry, looking to uphold military supremacy in space is Bush’s response to the extraterrestrial efforts of China and India. On the 14th of February the Chinese Space Agency announced its plans to begin its conquest of the moon in 2007. The Chinese won’t send an exploration mission to the red planet before 2020. India’s space programme, on the other hand, is ‘colour blind’ and the red planet is not currently in its sights. They are specialising in applications (telecommunication satellites, Earth observation, cartography, meteorology) and show little interest in scientific research in orbit.

The remaining space powers – the US, the EU, Russia, China and Japan – do share an objective. But Mars is hardly a good hostess: out of the 40 planned missions, 24 have failed.

The space race has had its positive effects on Europe. ESA promotes the development of new aeronautic technologies and creates jobs for the highly-qualified. With this, as well as an alliance with the tsars of the RKA (Rossiyskoe Kosmicheskoe Agentstvo, the Russian Space Agency), the Caesars of Europe can aspire to outshine NASA. But let’s not forget that though Mars may be just a few light-minutes from Earth, ESA’s budget is light years from that of NASA.

‘We’ll always have Venus’

In these times of a strong euro, the victory over tariffs and the protest from a large number of Europe’s nations against the war in Iraq, the promoters of an idea of Europe as pioneer want to add to this a crowning glory. But Europe shouldn’t kid itself. Water on Mars was an American discovery. The Old Continent must now concentrate its efforts on a manned mission to Mars. If we are truly to deserve a seat at the top table of space exploration, and not just to dazzle onlookers with some heavily-marketed but meaningless campaign, the first man (no, it won’t be a woman) to set foot on Mars must be a European. Europe is perfectly capable. And if the US, or China, or whoever, takes the lead it will still represent a victory for humanity. And anyway, there’s always Venus, the Goddess of Love…