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Robot now, Human Later: America’s Mars Dream

Gp. Capt. Ajey Lele (Retd.) is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 09, 2012

    Mars is in the news. The much published successful landing of NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars on August 06, 2012 is regarded as a technological marvel. The event also demonstrates that the ambitions of the United States to remain as a space superpower are still alive.

    The landing of Curiosity was sensational. It was one of the most difficult robotic manoeuvres ever undertaken on a nearby planet. It is important to note that the distance between Earth and Mars varies between 56 and 399 million kilometres.1 Naturally, to save time and fuel, Mars missions are launched during specific timeslots. It takes around eight months to reach Mars from Earth. The landing of the Curiosity rover was considered to be a complicated task because first a robotic laboratory weighing almost 1 ton had to be dropped on the Martian surface safely with a space crane and then the rover itself was lowered to the surface by using nylon cords. Scientists had called this entire operation as ‘seven minutes of terror’ because during those 420 seconds the entire operation of entry, descent and landing was to be performed. The main challenge, apart from landing, was to achieve a lowering of the speed of the craft from an initial 21,000 km/h to less than 1m/s at touch-down.

    The initial report indicates that this Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which was placed successfully on the Martian surface, has started performing perfectly. The basic purpose of the mission is to undertake climate- and geology-related studies. The mission would carry out soil and rock analysis. Also, studies would be undertaken to gain knowledge about the presence of water on the Martian surface. Chemical analysis would be undertaken to ascertain the presence of life. This mission is expected to last two years (687 Earth days, which is one Martian year).

    Mars has been studied since the early sixties by using space technologies. In 1964, the first successful fly-by mission (Mariner 4) to Mars was launched by NASA. Unfortunately, the success rate of Mars missions has remained only at about 50 per cent globally (however, the US success rate has been very good; 14 out of the 16 missions launched so far have been successful). Overall, the red planet still remains a mystery and it is expected that the various missions being planned for the near future would help unveil at least some aspects of this mystery.

    Interestingly, after the landing of Curiosity, a sudden gust of euphoria was witnessed among the American scientific and political communities. The scientific community getting elated is obvious; it was their ‘Olympics Gold moment’ and they had earned it. But statements issued by technocrats and the political community indicate that this achievement is much beyond a mere scientific triumph. For them, it is more about nationalism, reiteration of America’s technology leadership and about proving their country’s overall superiority. According to President Obama, "The successful landing of Curiosity … marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future."2

    It is obvious that Americans would use this mission to reassert their dominance in space. But the question is, ‘is there a need to demonstrate their superiority at this point in time’? Probably, yes. Americans understand that in this era where electronic, print and internet media play a critical role in making opinion, it is important to portray the visual manifestation of their technological strength. Some years back the world had watched with ‘Shock and Awe’ the American supremacy on the battlefield during the 1991 Gulf War. It was not only the military gizmos likes aircraft and missiles that had mesmerized the global community then but also the presence of the navigation and communication capabilities of their satellites which had played a major role in deciding the outcome of the war. Incidentally, the same communication technologies had also helped the Americans to get the war telecast ‘live’ to the drawing rooms of people around the world. Unfortunately, the same communication technology also transmitted the terror attacks of 9/11, depicting to the rest of the world how vulnerable the only superpower in the world is.

    Americans understand that during the last few years there have been problems about their global image due to the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their involvement in West Asia has also been a source of criticism. It took them a decade after 9/11 to display their military prowess by successfully killing Osama Bin Laden. Now, with the success of Curiosity, they have another opportunity to demonstrate their might, this time in a non-military way.

    America is the undisputed leader in space technology and everyone understands that reality. But in the recent past, mainly due to economic reasons and also partially due to technological reasons, Americans themselves were finding the going difficult. Their space shuttle programme, which was once demonstrative of their space supremacy and was the lifeline for their astronauts for travel to the International Space Station (IIS), was stopped. Currently, Americans depend on the Russians, their one time foe, to ferry their astronauts to the ISS.

    The Cold War era had witnessed a formidable space race between the two superpowers. It was President John F. Kennedy who had announced on May 25, 1961 before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of that decade. His administration was concerned about the leadership the erstwhile USSR had taken in the space arena with the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite followed by Yuri Gagarin’s space visit.3 Now, in the 21st century, are Americans wary about the rapid progress being made by China in the space arena? Particularly because of economic compulsions but also for technological reasons, many countries in the world are found making joint investments in space activities. The ISS is the best example of such efforts for which 16 nations have come together (including the Americans and Russians) to carry forward this idea. However, China is found to be going solo and yet achieving major success in a very short timeframe.

    There has been talk that China wants to put the first human on the Moon in the 21st century in order to demonstrate its technological superiority. Americans are putting up a brave front and claiming that the only humans to travel to the Moon so far have been Americans, which they achieved as early as the 1960s. However, they also understand that the Apollo missions have blurred from the visual memory of many and particularly the generations born after the 1970/80s who have no impressions about it. Probably, Americans want to raise the bar for themselves and achieve something which has never been attempted so far, a human mission to Mars.

    Hence, the Curiosity mission should not been seen in isolation. Americans have been serious about Mars for many years. Incidentally, all other earlier rovers sent over Mars have carried only a made in America tag. Presently, NASA is facing budget constraints and the American political community was not keen upon increasing its budget. However, the success of this mission would force the administration to think differently. Particularly after learning from the experience of the space shuttle programme, Americans are unlikely to abort the Mars programme abruptly. It may take a few more years but they are likely to attempt the manned mission to Mars. They would undertake this effort to demonstrate their supremacy once again and also probably to demonstrate the limitations of China’s rise.

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