What Mars exploration means for international politics back on earth

More than science and symbolism.
More than science and symbolism.
Image: Reuters/NASA/Joel Kowsky/
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A robotic exploration mission sent by NASA will attempt to land on the Martian surface later today (tune in to watch starting at 2:15 US eastern time), catching up to two probes sent by China and the United Arab Emirates that arrived last week.

The US has been here before, and its rover is equipped, for the first time, with a small helicopter that will attempt to explore Mars in flight. China’s first trip to Mars will also attempt the difficult task of landing sometime in May or June. The UAE’s mission will orbit the planet, carefully mapping it with remote sensors.

The arrival of all three probes at the Red planet was driven by its relative proximity to earth last year when the missions launched, but also presents a symbolic lineup: The reigning space power and its main competitor, along with a third nation outlining a new model of national space investment.

“It’s really important that NASA and the US continue to lead in space exploration, continue to do these civilization-first type missions,” says Steve Jurczyk, a veteran NASA executive currently serving as the agency’s interim head until president Joe Biden nominates a permanent replacement.

But what does leading in space mean in a world where space technology is increasingly easy to access? The old model of the Apollo program, which signaled technological superiority to the rest of the world, is now outmoded.

“The US has been slow to catch on, to be frank, because it misunderstands some of the fundamentals of the new race,” says Peter Garretson, a retired US Air Force officer who is now a senior fellow focused on space strategy at the conservative-leaning American Foreign Policy Council. “For newly arrived space powers, repeating old tricks and doing new first-of-a-kind tricks still commands attention. But what really matters is who is establishing a long-term industrial and logistical base from which they can command long-term economic power.”

Garretson and Namrata Goswami, an independent space policy analyst, have written a book called Scramble for the Skies that outlines their expectation that space power will be built around exploiting the economic potential beyond earth. In particular, they fear China will outstrip other powers because of its long-term focus on development.

“Today, the context of space is much more about the economic returns,” Goswami told Quartz in an email. “A service like GPS or BeiDou offers the possibility of billions of dollars in return on investments. Countries like China are investing in space technologies like 3D printing, advanced robotics, and AI given their rationale of trillions of dollars of resources waiting on the Moon and asteroids to be harvested. The idea is not just showcasing space technology for its own sake, but towards a long-term strategic purpose.”

“US goals in space are not even one-thousandth as ambitious as what the Chinese have articulated,” Garretson says, citing Beijing’s detailed plans to outstrip the US as a space power by 2045—with a new space station, a moon colony, and the development of technology to capture solar power in orbit.

In comparison, American experience with space success during the Apollo program has led to a culture that favors symbolic moonshot projects over long-term, cumulative investment. But under recent presidents the growing role of public-private partnerships and policy directives prioritizing the economic development of space has bent policy toward this vision.

The Artemis program, launched under Trump to return US astronauts to the moon, provides a case study. The initial goal of laying the groundwork for sustainable long-term presence there fits with this new vision of space power, but the push to strip away the more complex parts of the program in order to meet an arbitrary 2024 deadline made less sense. Garretson says that delaying the 2024 date to build more useful lunar infrastructure makes sense.  “Any part of the architecture that is expendable and is not able to be used by the private sector for their own purposes is a missed opportunity,” he adds.

As the US warily eyes China (and Russia) as rivals in space, it will also find itself working more with partners, both traditional and newly arrived.

“In some cases, the  UAE has an advantage—they haven’t got a history, they don’t have these processes and procedure,” Jurczyk says, comparing the young space program with its private-sector start-ups. “In some ways they can be more innovative and lean forward in exploiting cube sats and small spacecraft. We’re supporting them with lessons learned engineering very complex systems and help them with enabling their innovation.”

For NASA’s rover Perseverance, a key part of its mission will be setting aside samples of Martian geology to return to earth. The return mission, launching in 2026, relies on a rover built by the European Space Agency to snatch the samples.

For the countries with new programs, space power isn’t just about achieving scientific milestones. It is about economic development, as in India, which began its space program just weeks after the Apollo 11 landing to enable weather forecasting, climate monitoring,  and other development goals, Namrata says. And the message of exploration isn’t just for other countries but also for a domestic audience, allowing unelected governments in Abu Dhabi or Beijing to gain prestige in front of their people.

But small, wealthy countries like the UAE and Luxembourg, itself a satellite pioneer, see a chance to win more than just prestige. Garretson argues that these countries are well positioned to “be mediators and craft a new global consensus” on space activity, enabling access to other technologies and attracting financial activity, as well as bigger role in global affairs.

“Any nation that seeks to carry the banner of leadership in the world symbolically must also carry it in space,” he says.

A version of this story originally appeared in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.