5 July 2002
MOSCOW –– Russian space officials proposed an ambitious project on Friday to send a six-person team to Mars by the year 2015, a trip that would mark a milestone in space travel and international space cooperation.
Russia's space program hopes to work closely with the American agency NASA and the European Space Agency to build two spaceships capable of transporting the crew to Mars, supporting them on the planet for up to two months and safely bringing them home, said Nikolai Anfimov, head of the Central Research Institute of Machine-Building.
The roughly 440-day trip is expected to cost about $20 billion, with Russia suggesting it would contribute 30 percent.
"It must be an international project," said Vitaly Semyonov, head of the Mars project at the M.V. Keldysha Space Research Center. "No one country could cope alone with this task."
Russian space officials said they are receiving encouraging signs of interest from NASA and European counterparts.
But NASA spokeswoman Delores Beasley said Friday that the Russians have not submitted any formal plan and that the agency would not comment on the proposed trip before then. Because of demands from Congress to scale back costs, human travel to Mars has not been on NASA's radar recently.
"We are still very far away," conceded Alain Fournier-Sicre, head of the European Space Agency's permanent mission in Russia. "But this kind of program is a long-term initiative for every space agency in the world," he said, adding that he held a meeting with Russian space officials this week to discuss the project.
Landing humans on Mars has long been a dream of Russian space scientists. But even in the heyday of the Soviet space program, when Moscow reported success after success, its attempts to reach the Red Planet were marked by failure. Soviet scientists began whispering about a "Mars curse."
The Soviet Union kicked off Mars exploration in 1960 by launching two unmanned spacecraft four days apart, but both failed even to make it as far as Earth's orbit. One resulted in an engine explosion that scattered debris and contamination over the Baikonur launch pad in one of the worst accidents in Soviet space history.
That was followed by repeated attempts and often repeated disappointment. The bad luck for Russia continued on Nov. 16, 1996, when the Russians launched an ambitious $300 million spacecraft, Mars 96, which they hoped would prove to the world that despite their economic struggles after the Soviet breakup, they could still run a first-rate space program. Mars 96 suffered an engine failure just after launch and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Anfimov said that despite the setbacks, "we never stopped planning and seeking opportunities to reach our next goal: Mars."
NASA's Mars program, plagued by its own series of setbacks, got back on track earlier this year when the unmanned Mars Odyssey spacecraft entered orbit around the planet and began mapping the mineral and chemical makeup of the surface.
Anatoly Grigoryev, director of the Institute of Medical-Biological Problems, which works with all of Russia's cosmonauts, said Russia's plan calls for a cargo and a manned ship, which would consist of a commander, a second pilot, a flight engineer, a doctor and two researchers. Three members of the team would descend to Mars, while the other three would remain onboard the ship in orbit.
Grigoryev said the trip could answer many of the remaining questions about Earth's mysterious neighbor.
"Is there life on Mars? If there is, what kind of life?" Grigoryev said, barely able to suppress his excitement. "This would be historic."