Mission to Mars

Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev plans to propose a joint U.S.-Soviet unmanned mission to Mars when he and President Reagan meet next week. The President should welcome this idea. To be sure, there are political and technological problems built into such a venture, but it is well worth doing, and it is well worth doing together.

Mars, the red planet, is the next logical goal for space exploration. The Russians have set their sights on going there with both an unmanned and a manned mission, which could also be done jointly with the United States.

A joint unmanned mission would be the first step in this ambitious project, as well as the first step in a new spirit of cooperation rather than competition in space. It would also reemphasize the value of unmanned explorations of the planets. Human beings are important in space, but much can be done without them.


The United States has dominated space activity for two decades, but the Russians are coming back strong--particularly with the space shuttle still grounded nearly 2 1/2 years after the Challenger disaster. Meantime, the Russians have continued their extensive space program, which includes 85 to 100 launches a year. Their Mir space station is inhabited almost continuously by Soviet cosmonauts, who remain in space long enough to conceive a baby and give birth to it--should they choose to conduct such an experiment (which they haven’t yet).

The U.S. space program is moribund both because of the loss of the shuttle and because it lacks a clear goal beyond the space station, which continues to slip in budgetary and administrative planning. Going to Mars and returning soil samples to Earth would be an important goal in its own right. The technology that would have to be developed could then be used for further explorations of other planets or other moons in the solar system.

A continuing worry for the United States in such a project would be the technology transfer to the Soviet Union. For all their strengths in space, the Russians still lag behind this country in the basic technologies of building and launching rockets and satellites. (One of the reasons the Russians launch so many vehicles each year is that their satellites don’t last very long in space and need to be replaced regularly.)

But space scientists who have been thinking for years about a joint U.S.-Soviet mission to Mars have divided the task in such a way that the amount of interaction would be minimized. The Russians could build one part of the system--perhaps the Martian rover--and this country could build another part--perhaps the lander and return vehicle--and they needn’t have all that much to do with each other until they actually get there.

Another problem in a joint mission would be the effect of roller-coaster relations between the two superpowers between now and the late 1990s, when the mission would be launched. The history of the postwar era has seen periods of friendly relations between the two countries alternate with periods of unfriendly relations. Right now things are pretty good. Would the project fall apart if things turned sour? The existence of the joint Mars mission would be an incentive to keep that from happening.

Despite the potential pitfalls, on balance Gorbachev’s plan is a good idea--good for the Russians, good for us and good for humanity’s age-old quest to learn and explore.