Rocket Scientist Robert Zubrin on Why China Should Go to Mars
BEIJING — On a cold night in late March, barren, brick-colored landscapes flit across a screen in a Shanghai conference room — shots from National Geographic’s “Mars,” a TV series that explores the likelihood of humans settling on the red planet in 2033.
Tonight’s speaker is a man who pioneered that idea more than 30 years ago: Robert Zubrin, an American aerospace engineer and founder of the Mars Society, a self-proclaimed “space advocacy organization,” with a presence in around 30 countries and territories, dedicated to the exploration and colonization of the planet. Zubrin is visiting a number of cities in China to mark the establishment of the Mars Society’s first chapter in the country.
Zubrin’s association with Mars stretches back decades. In the 1990s, as an engineer at Martin Marietta — the company that later became the global aerospace giant Lockheed Martin — Zubrin was part of the team that wrote “Mars Direct,” a pioneering, cost-effective approach to Mars exploration that informed NASA’s mission to the planet. Since the mid-’90s, he’s authored a number of acclaimed books and scholarly papers about Mars, including 1996’s “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.”
Zubrin, a talkative 67-year-old, is excited by developments in China’s aerospace industry — particularly the crop of young private startups positioning themselves as challengers to established American rocketeers like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its competitor, Blue Origin. During his visit, one such company, LinkSpace, successfully test-launched a reusable rocket prototype in eastern China’s Shandong province, an achievement Zubrin describes as “like a 7-year-old composing a symphony.” Another, OneSpace, attempted to launch a payload-carrying rocket into the Earth’s orbit, but failed — a sign of the trial-and-error approach that characterizes China’s nascent space companies.
Sixth Tone later sat down with Zubrin in Beijing to discuss China’s spacefaring companies, the country’s lunar and Mars missions, and the future of the space race. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: In March, you witnessed LinkSpace’s successful test launch of a reusable rocket prototype. What do you think of their achievements so far?
Zubrin: I’m impressed with the confidence of the young people at LinkSpace to invite both me — a foreign observer — and a heavy-hitting potential investor (Wang Jian, the founder of Alibaba Cloud) to witness their first free-flying launch. They could’ve failed, and the whole world would have known about it.
They made the launch look easy, but I know enough about rockets to know it wasn’t easy at all. People have been building big rocket engines for many years, but building systems with the degree of control and precision required for reusability is an extremely difficult challenge. The wind (at the Shandong launch site) was blowing at 30 kilometers an hour, yet they brought it back and landed exactly at the center of the pad. It’s fantastic. And it was a young team — the CEO of the company is just 26 years old.
I don’t know if anyone else could do that other than SpaceX, Blue Origin, or NASA. But they run billion-dollar programs; LinkSpace had a total budget of only a few million dollars over their five-year development.
Sixth Tone: You also saw that OneSpace failed to launch its carrier rocket into orbit. How do you interpret its failure?
Zubrin: What they’re doing is hard stuff. But if a young rocket company like OneSpace has a launch failure, we mustn’t say, “Oh my god, what a bunch of idiots.” No. Just getting off the launch pad is a lot.
I met Elon Musk at SpaceX’s first factory in 2004, when they were developing (the company’s flagship rocket) the Falcon 1. I told him, “You should be ready to do at least three launches, because I’m pretty sure your first two are going to fail.” He asked me what I thought was wrong with his design. I said I didn’t know, but I do know that rocket design, construction, and launches are very complicated, and there are probably going to be mistakes.
Musk’s first three launches failed, but they decided to try again. The fourth time, he succeeded. That’s what it takes to succeed in this industry.
Sixth Tone: What stage are Chinese commercial space companies at in their development, and what kind of potential do they have?
Zubrin: Apart from LinkSpace and LandSpace — who is developing conventional, large single-use rockets — there are several other companies with substantial funding. I think all of them are following Musk’s example. People are seeing that commercial rocket launches are possible, and they’re making it happen.
In five years, there will be a serious Chinese competitor to SpaceX. That company will compete with SpaceX on launch price and reliability. If non-spacefaring countries want to put their own satellites into orbit, Chinese and American companies will be bidding on an open market (for their business).
Right now, SpaceX is wiping the floor with the competition. There were 114 launches last year in the world, and SpaceX got more than 20 of them. Most of the rest were state-sponsored launches that American companies don’t have access to.
The Chinese are going to have to get real good to compete with SpaceX. But I’ve seen companies here with terrific potential. We will probably see some of them reach orbit within three years and become strong competitors within five.
Sixth Tone: China’s Lunar Exploration Project proposes to build a permanent moon base and send astronauts to live on the moon. What are your expectations for its success?
Zubrin: As for human spacefaring, China can do it. The U.S. did it with 1960s technology, back when we didn’t even have pocket calculators. Today, China has much more advanced technology and a larger economy. More importantly, I think you should do it. For one thing, it could wake NASA up; one of the reasons why NASA accomplished so much in the ’60s is that we had the USSR for competition. And for another, a great nation should do great things.
It’d be great for China to land a rover near the lunar south pole, because right now the only water on the moon — that we know of — lies in these permanently shadowed craters. But I think in the polar regions outside the craters, there’s probably significant water content a meter or so underground. Those areas are hard to get to, because there’s no solar energy available at the poles (to power moon-landing equipment). Sending a rover with the right equipment to look for near-surface water to that area would be potentially a very productive mission.
Sixth Tone: China plans to send a rover to Mars in 2020, nearly half a century after NASA’s Viking project did the same. How do you evaluate the need for such research?
Zubrin: Obviously, China’s lagging behind for now, because it has not conducted any explorations of its own. But China’s rover could create very meaningful research if it carries instruments that have never been used before.
For instance, in 2018 the European Mars Express mission discovered an underground lake on Mars using ground-penetrating radar. But the probe was launched in 2003, and its radar has a low frequency, meaning it can penetrate deep into the ground but doesn’t have much precision. If China sends a higher-frequency radar, we could look for subsurface ice or water with much greater reliability.
China can also help update the technology used for communications satellites. The rovers currently on Mars generally send back data via aging relay satellites. Replacing them with communication links that can send back data at much higher rates would, for example, enable rovers to send back high-definition video instead of still images.
Sixth Tone: How do you interpret cooperation and competition between the U.S. and China in terms of Mars exploration?
Zubrin: Sharing data among countries could lead to more and quicker discoveries. If one country launched a communication link satellite with a high data rate, I’d hope that both sides would be able to use it. Imagine that one side detects methane on Mars and the other finds a warm spot on the planet’s surface that could be the methane’s source. If you take these different discoveries and put them together, you may find a geothermal vent — a place to go look for life.
Of course, there’ll also be competition, but that’s fine. It’s like the Olympics — nations compete for honors in terms of who can claim the greatest discoveries.
Back on Earth, it impresses people when a country possesses great technical virtuosity. When the U.S. landed on the moon, I was, of all places, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) playing chess. The Soviets came up to me, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Molodyets!” — “Way to go!” — when they heard about the moon landing. They were impressed. Achievements like that convey a sense of the merit of a country — its technology, its imagination, its potential.
Correction: A previous version of this article misinterpreted a comment about the presence of water on the moon and misstated the Russian word spoken in response to the U.S. moon landing.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A boy in an astronaut outfit looks up at the Beijing Planetarium, Beijing, March 30, 2019. Matjaz Tancic for Sixth Tone)