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19 July 2022

From the NS archive: The race to Mars

16 July 1965: Why can’t the US and the Soviet Union collaborate in their space exploration?

By Gerald Leach

Writing four years before the first manned spaceflight to the Moon, the New Statesman’s science correspondent, Gerald Leach, argued for an international collaboration to further space travel. In July 1965 the American craft “Mariner” made the first successful Mars flyby, collecting close up photographs of its surface. The Soviet “Zond” probe departed on a similar mission two days after “Mariner”: could the countries not have worked together? Leach argued that collaboration made sense financially – space exploration was hugely expensive and was taking resources from other areas of scientific development. This expense would only increase as planned missions – for humans to land on Mars, as well as the Moon – became more technologically feasible. “But,” Leach wrote, “it is doubtful whether either side will sort out the confusion of genuine scientific and human reasons for going from the quasi-military and nationalistic ambitions to do anything about this in time.”


The flight of Mariner to Mars opens a new phase of the space race. As they dead-heat each other on the way to the Moon, the two rivals now start level on the long road to Mars and the planets beyond. The Soviet’s Zond probe was shot to Mars only two days after Mariner and it was mere bad luck that silenced it en route. So it is time once again to ask not whether but when the rivals will collaborate in exploring space. There are formidable difficulties – not least Soviet paranoia about revealing hardware secrets (which are probably not secrets at all). But the alternative is daunting. The solar system is a big place, and the contest could stretch right on to the time when nuclear rockets of both sides fly in neck-and-neck to land on Pluto, the farthest planet. To have two Moonports is extravagance enough. But to duplicate Planetports is idiotic. Both sides have scored plenty of spectacular space “firsts” and all the prestige that goes with them. It is now surely time they realised that though they are big, the solar system is a great deal bigger – and more interesting and spectacular – than either.

Both contestants must in fact know this, since both have made repeated offers to the other, the most recent coming from President Johnson this February. There are good reasons for collaboration. The US cannot look at its Moon budget and contemplate Mars and beyond with an easy mind. To get two Americans to the Moon will have cost at least $20,000 million and the US space agency’s budget is to be over $5,000 million for 1966 alone, of which $3,000 million is for Project Apollo. Even more serious is the drain on human resources. Of the 1.5 million US scientists and engineers, 5.4 per cent are working full-time for the space agency and many, many more are involved part-time. In the last three years the agency absorbed 27 per cent of the increase in scientists and engineers and 39 per cent of the increase in research and development specialists. These figures are high or low depending on one’s enthusiasm for space as against other adventures, but they do raise a real spectre of a space-mad American scientific youth turning away from other pursuits. The drop in these figures in the next three years as the Moon shot nears its climax will probably be cancelled out by the gradual phase-in of the Mars and beyond programme.

For some Americans there is also a dawning realisation that the great American Moon dream may burst like the South Sea Bubble. The first men on the Moon will not bring back the Holy Grail but merely some Moon dust. There is a growing recognition that the chorus of enthusiasm has drowned out the technical doubters: that a bad landing on an unknown lunar surface from which rescue would be impossible, or bursts of solar radiation during the time of sunspot activity for which the adventure is planned, might turn the astronaut-initiates into sacrifices. One way out would be to go more slowly and steadily. Another would be to share the burden, for then even a failed mission would give the world encouragement, while success would be truly magnificent. But for the Moon expedition it is almost too late. Both rivals have wound up their vast machines too tightly for any doubts to stop them now or to alter any significant detail – except perhaps to postpone the launching date (something the Soviets may well have decided on). There is just the possibility, though, of sending two mixed-manned expeditions at the same time, one Russian and one American to land on the Moon, the other team to back up in case of an accident. But it is doubtful whether either side will sort out the confusion of genuine scientific and human reasons for going from the quasi-military and nationalistic ambitions to do anything about this in time.

For sending men to Mars and beyond they clearly must. But there are problems. Last year the Space Science Board (which advises the space agency, NASA) called for a clear statement of American goals in space. Apart from President Kennedy’s summons to get a man on the Moon within the decade, there has never really been one. At the same time, the SSB proposed Mars as the prime target for the 1970s and even that it should take priority over the consolidation of a Moon landing. The main reason for going to Mars should be to search for signs of life, though prestige was also recognised as important. From 1971 to 1985 Mars should be explored by automatic vehicles – especially life detectors – and after 1985, when the technology is ready, by men. NASA has now signalled acceptance of this proposal in its 1966 budget request, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (responsible for the Ranger and Surveyor Moon vehicles) is now working on the Voyager series of Marscraft. Weighing up to five tons, they could be sent to Mars by a Saturn 1B rocket, which should be ready by 1967. Acceptance of the Voyager series cancels any further Mariner shots – so Thursday’s fly-past will be the last for six years.

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This proposal has stirred up a furious argument among American scientists. Its inherent assumption that life on Mars is probable enough for a major programme to be based on it has been strongly challenged by several leading biologists, notably Professor Barry Commoner and Philip Abelson. They recently wrote in the influential magazine Science that “in looking for life on Mars, we could establish for ourselves the reputation of being the greatest Simple Simons of all time.” Abelson wants smaller and cheaper steps, such as further Mariner shots might have provided, to test the probabilities further before committing the nation to a major programme. Commoner, convinced that the severe Martian environment makes life extremely improbable, accuses the SSB of using the lure of life on Mars to sell Congress a programme it would like to see for other, less straightforward reasons. He and his fellow members of the Committee on Science in the Promotion of Human Welfare suggests that the whole integrity of science has been threatened in that there was no full discussion of the case – for and against the chances of Martian life, and the difficulties of detecting it if there were any – before the decision was made. As so often before – with the needles in space experiment, or the “Starfish” high altitude nuclear explosion – political (or military) decisions have come before frank discussion of their effects. As with the manned Moonshot – where, for example, the landing gear was designed long before anyone tried to find out what the lunar surface was like –  there is a policy of decide first and think afterwards.

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To say that the crude optimism of the SSB – that there is life on Mars – has won the day would be too simple. In fact, in calling for a major Mars programme, the SSB laced its scientific reasons with a vague statement of other motives: “The argument … is not presented solely in the interests of pure research. The board takes for granted that broad, multifaceted national interests lie behind an effective space programme.” These the SSB summed up as “ultimately the proper development of extended manned activities in space”. The implication of military and prestige interests is clear. And, just as clearly, the opportunity for US-Soviet collaboration recedes.

What is most disturbing is that the Mars programme, based on the assumption that the US would turn away from the Moon after a manned landing, has been accepted before any decisions have been made on Moon exploration for the 1970s. Obviously, once on the Moon, the Americans will not be able to let it alone – indeed, why should they? Yet in time, the Mars programme will dwarf the current $3,000 million a year spending on the manned Moonshot – itself only a first phase of exploring the Moon. Even the Voyager series of 15 spacecraft will run to many megabucks. And these things tend to grow: only recently the Douglas Space Systems Centre came up with plans for a six-man fly past of Mars for 1973, based on existing technology, which may well find its way onto the 1967 and later space budgets.

Whichever way one looks at it, there is trouble brewing. If the gallop to the Moon is suddenly halted for a gallop to Mars and beyond, the outcry will be fearful. If it is not, then the combined Mars-Moon budgets will be. On any reckoning it looks as if America (and even more so, the Soviet Union) needs collaboration – badly.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).