On Valentine’s Day, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Emir of Dubai, made an official statement about an audacious plan. The plan, officially dubbed Mars 2117, is to construct a small, functioning city on Mars within the next 100 years.
And he gave a statement on Twitter, in 6 brief tweets. Because, apparently, that’s just the kind of world we live in now.
I always admire an audacious plan.
The thing is, the UAE is currently an outsider in the world of space travel. While NASA is the kindly old grandfather who used to do amazing things and still does when he can remember where he left his wallet, UAE is more like the starry eyed little child who stares out of the window and wishes she could go to Mars someday. Something I’m sure many of us can relate to.
Even so, the UAE is home to its own fledgling space agency, formed in 2014, with current plans to launch its first mission to our neighbouring planet. The Hope spacecraft is scheduled to arrive in orbit around Mars in 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the formation of the UAE.
But the question which I’ve seen a lot of discussions focus on is simple. With so little experience in spaceflight, does the UAE stand any chance of actually accomplishing a feat like this? They do plan to include an international team of scientists, so assuming they choose their employees well, there should be at least some knowledge and experience to go around.
And all too often, one of the biggest problems with space travel is funding – or a lack thereof. NASA, as a shining example, has been plagued by repeated setbacks in recent years due to a simple lack of funding★. NASA’s ill-fated Constellation program, for example, was supposed to herald a return to the surface of the Moon. At least that was the plan when it was proposed in 2005. Due to politics and money, it was cancelled in 2009. Plans from Constellation were salvaged for the Orion spacecraft which was proposed in 2011, development for which is ongoing.
Consider as well, that the Apollo program only took 8 years from its inception in 1961 to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon in 1969. NASA itself was formed in 1958, launching the Mercury program shortly afterwards❉.
The Mercury capsule, infamous for being little more than a tin can with an astronaut inside, made its first uncrewed flight in 1959, and its first crewed flight in 1961. In 1962, it made John Glen the first of NASA’s astronauts to make an orbit of planet Earth.
In other words, NASA went from having no orbital spaceflight experience at all to sending humans to the Moon in just 11 years. Of course, this was the Cold War. I could make valiant statements about how all it took them was willpower, a sense of purpose, and sufficient amounts of money… But more candidly this was about competing with the Soviet Union, and one of the only times in history when a country has put the level of resources usually reserved for war towards other purposes.
All the same, it served to show us, as a species, what we’re capable of when we actually put our minds to it. It also left us full of dreams and ambitions which have yet to be realised. Despite 60 years of artwork envisioning cities on Mars and astronauts visiting Jupiter, none of this has been accomplished. I remember dreamily looking at pictures like those in books when I was just a kid, wondering when they might finally become reality.
Romantic visions aside, Sheikh Mohammed and his predecessor Sheikh Maktoum have shown talent in conceptualising ambitious projects and bringing them to fruition – The Palm Islands and the Burj Khalifa being notable examples. Dubai itself has made a dramatic transformation from a fading fishing town to a prosperous international city in a remarkably short time. The Al-Maktoum dynasty certainly has no shortage of money and the Sheikhs seem unlikely to give up on a project once they’ve set their minds to it.
The bottom line is, do I think that Sheikh Mohammed stands a chance at constructing the first human city on Mars? In only 100 years? Yes I do. NASA made a colossal accomplishment in space travel with only 11 years of hard work. Even if they only worked half as hard as they did then, if they’d simply been given enough money to continue, there would probably be humans on Mars right now.
Ultimately, I think what we need to lift our species off just one planet✿ is simple. We need people who aren’t afraid to keep spending money working towards it. We need sustained effort that doesn’t vanish after only 4 years. We need to not be afraid to take a few necessary risks.
And we need to remember that it wasn’t actually very long ago that NASA had no experience in spaceflight either. That fact did not stop them from trying, and it should not stop others either.
★ In 2016, NASA was given a budget of $19.3 billion. Which seems like a lot until you realise that the US military was given a budget of $596 billion, which accounts for over a third of the total world military budget. I’m presenting these facts without comment.
❉ I originally wrote here that the first US “astronauts” to fly above the Kármán line made their flights in 1959 in the experimental X-15 aircraft. Turns out, I was mistaken and that actually there were no X-15 flights above the Kármán line until after Glenn made his orbits of Earth in 1962! In any case, if you’re interested, there’s still a transcript of an interview with Neil Armstrong about the X-15 online to read.
✿ And as Robert Heinlein once said, “The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.”
Images (excluding those in tweets):
UAE Space Agency Mars Hope – artist’s impression
Aviator Jerrie Cobb standing next to a NASA Mercury capsule
Artwork by Klaus Bürgle of a city on Mars
Panorama of martian hills taken by NASA Curiosity