There has been a lot of hype about the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and a lot of discussion about SpaceX’s ability to deliver on its plans. Additionally the plans of SpaceX have also shown up what NASA is planning to do with the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA’s plans are a little less ambitious as far as the timeline goes but are certainly a lot more richer in what they want to achieve, including a return to the Moon and a space station orbiting the Moon. SpaceX, on the other hand, have single minded ambition on getting to Mars and may well just do that. Either way it’s looking increasingly likely that the US will be the first nation to put humans on Mars, it might be SpaceX, it might be NASA or it might be some combination of both of them. The timeline could be anywhere from 7 years to 17 years but it’s increasingly looking like it will happen.
Of course the rest of the world is not going to sit back and simply watch, other nations have desires to be big players in space as well. China and Russia both have plans for a Super Heavy Lift Rocket of the scale and ability of the Saturn V with a view for lofting heavy objects into orbit for visiting both Mars and the Moon. Both projects have long timelines and both are considerably further behind the SLS and BFR projects. It’s worth remembering that SpaceX is already testing the engines for the BFR and has built other components and NASA already have the engines, boosters and platform for the SLS built and is putting together the rest of the rocket whereas both China and Russia are in the early stages of design.
The Russians reported in early February that Energia Cooperation was going to be the lead developer for the Super Heavy Rocket, known as the KRK STK. The aim of this rocket is to get payloads into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) of up to 90,000 kg and 20,000 kg into lunar orbit, not quite a Saturn V but still very powerful. The Russian president signed a decree for the construction of a complex to build the rocket and they want to make sure the rocket uses as much existing infrastructure and technology as possible. The first stage is to get a draft design done in the next couple of years and then the period between 2020 and 2028 will be used to build the components, test, build and install infrastructure. Plans for flight testing will be sometime after 2028. It doesn’t look like this rocket will be competing for the first slot to Mars but it will certainly keep Russia in the frame for Moon missions. Russia has plans for Mars as well, though the detail is not very clear. The Russian President announced earlier this year that they have plans for both manned and unmanned missions to Mars with the first mission kicking off in 2019. He said that they plan to land near to poles to look for water. Given the lack of heavy lift options and the lengthy timeline of what is suggested for the KRK STK it might be sometime before cosmonauts are walking on the Martian surface.
China has it’s own super heavy lift plans as well and these are centred around the Long March family of rockets and in particular the development of the Long March 9. Though, like Russia, these won’t be making holes in the atmosphere anytime soon. China’s space programme has advanced significantly in recent years including the launch of manned missions, a space station and plans for building a larger space station and crewing it for longer periods of time. The Long March 9 is in design phase and will be a rocket of similar size and power to the Saturn V. The aim is to be able to put 140,000 kg into LEO and 50,000 kg heading towards the Moon. The engine design for this monster rocket is already underway but the plan for its first flight is not until 2030. China has ambitious plans for Mars including the launch of an orbiter, lander and rover in 2020 that will study the planet in preparation for further missions. They hope to also conduct retrieval missions to the red planet between 2025 and 2030 to return material collected by earlier missions. Plans to send humans to Mars are less clear, though China is certainly doing activities that are similar to other countries thinking about sending humans to Mars. This includes an analog Mars experiment th kind of where volunteers spend 200 days confined to cabin to test the effects on future taikonauts of long term missions.
The race to Mars doesn’t have very many contenders, really only two at this stage and both of them from the US. SpaceX is proclaiming less than a decade.
Longer term there could well be cosmonauts and US astronauts (or Musknauts?) together on Mars with taikonauts not far behind, but it’s likely to be well into the 2030s or 2040s before we observe that. The current plans for Russia and China to develop rockets powerful enough to get sizeable payloads to Mars are quite long term when compared to both SpaceX and NASA.