We have learned much more about Mars during the last several years and are growing quite eager to develop the Red Planet. It has been established with almost complete certainty that Mars abounds in water. It will therefore become possible to colonize Mars. Quite a few scientists believe that the Martian atmosphere could be restored with an artificial greenhouse effect.
Academics Sergei Korolev and Mstislav Keldysh were the first to contemplate manned Martian missions in the early 1960s. However, experts did not discuss the feasibility of such flights until the late 20th century after long-duration expeditions aboard the Salyut and Mir space stations.
Any manned mission to the Red Planet is a formidable task that can only be accomplished through joint international efforts. The International Science and Technology Committee was established four years ago in order to facilitate interaction between Russian and Western scientists during the project's implementation. This committee is called upon to coordinate national space programs to help reach the ultimate goal - landing Man on Mars. The committee was composed of eight Russians, eight Americans and five EU delegates.
Right now, the international Martian program involves NASA and U.S. company Boeing, the European Space Agency and the Astrium company. As far as Russia is concerned, the program involves Federal Space Agency scientific centers, the Energia space shuttle corporation, the Space Research Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences, the Academy's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems and others.
Russian scientists and specialists have received a grant from the committee, and are using it to complete initial designs for the manned Martian expedition. The relevant forms and records make up 30 volumes of information on the Red Planet, as well as any conceivable manned-mission scenario. Leading Russian experts discuss mission objectives, spacecraft options and other related aspects.
Energia has suggested a design of the inter-planetary spacecraft that would become the central element of the manned Martian orbital station (MARPOST). This orbital station would fly to Mars time and again, with cosmonauts landing robot probes on the planetary surface and controlling them from MARPOST. The station would return to the Earth after accomplishing its objectives. It would then operate as an ISS (International Space Station)-type orbiter.
The Keldysh research center has already launched wind-tunnel tests of a Martian descent module mock-up with a 1: 200 scale.
The Martian descent module will, in fact, be a 35-ton platform comprising several self-contained spacecraft inside one single body. Their list will include the Marsokhod (Martian roving vehicle) and a rocket for returning cosmonauts to MARPOST. The Red Planet's extremely rarefied atmosphere rules out the use of parachutes. Consequently, spacecraft will soft-land with the help of retro-rockets.
A projected Martian mission would involve six cosmonauts, namely, a mission commander, a flight engineer, a doctor, a pilot and two scientists. The first three people will remain aboard the mother ship, orbiting Mars. The pilot and two scientists, a biologist and a geologist, will land on the Martian surface. They would spend 30 days there, subsequently blasting off into space and docking with MARPOST. The entire Earth - Mars - Earth mission would last about 730 days.
The Institute of Medical and Biological Problems is completing preparations for a simulated Martian mission. Six testers will spend 500 days inside a spacecraft mock-up, "flying" over to the Red Planet, "landing" on its surface and subsequently "returning" to the Earth. The "crew" will take about three tons of water and five tons of food, also generating oxygen by means of a closed-cycle life-support system. The European Space Agency has expressed interest in participating.
The manned Martian mission will face serious financial problems. This concerns both Russia and the United States. It will take 10 - 12 years to implement the MARPOST project with annual expenses totaling nearly $1.5 billion. America plans to spend ten times as much on its own Martian project. Nonetheless, this sum total exceeds three annual Russian space budgets. The trouble is that Russian scientists specializing in fundamental research and the government (that hands out money) are not very enthusiastic about manned missions. The federal center can see that Russia's participation in the ISS project neither expands its scientific and technological potential nor its production potential. This project also does not contribute substantially to Russia's image. Consequently, manned missions receive pitifully inadequate appropriations that are barely enough to conduct such flights. And this only because apart from manned missions, Russia has few attributes proving its hi-tech status. Will Russian authorities modify their position on the manned Martian program? The answer is unknown.
The pace of America's Martian program also continues to slacken. In January 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush said that America must return to the Moon and fly toward Mars. He promised to increase the annual NASA budget by five percent, for three years in a row. The 2005 budget did increase by five percent, but the 2006 budget will go up by only 2.4 %. The Martian spacecraft's nuclear-engine project will receive just $320 million next year instead of the $500 million being requested by NASA.
Washington will likely become less interested in initial Martian projects, allocating less money for their implementation. The U.S. administration plans to halve the federal budget deficit by 2009. Non-defense programs, including space programs, will therefore have to be pruned.
Russia should not attach priority to cooperation with the United States in exploring outer space because this would be fraught with certain risks. Moscow has learned the main lesson of cooperation from the ISS program: Regardless of its technological advances, an economically weaker partner will always depend on a stronger partner. Even though Russian specialists have come closer to launching a manned Martian mission than anybody else and Russia's leading positions in this field are obvious, it can still turn into a "rickshaw" that would deliver richer countries' space crews to Mars.
Far from all Russian and foreign scientists share the enthusiasm of the manned Martian mission's advocates. Astronomers and planet researchers believe that such a mission will not prove cost effective, wasting both money and resources. In their opinion, automatic probes could accomplish the same objectives and a manned expedition would cost at least 100 times more, making a possible voyage to Mars unlikely in the next few decades.