Here’s why the race to Mars continues despite COVID

From mid-July to mid-August, Earth is in a position that allows the shortest possible trip to Mars. That’s why we have seen two pivotal space missions to Mars from China and the UAE launch in the last two weeks. We are now expecting the U.S. to launch a Mars rover mission later today.


InSpace Director, Prof Anna Moore, asked InSpace Mission Specialist, Dr Cassandra Steer from the ANU College of Law, for her take on why the race to Mars is continuing at such a rapid pace. Dr Cassandra Steer specialises in space law, space security, international law and focusses on the weaponisation of space as well as the ethics and international politics of space situational awareness.



With so many countries and their scientists focussed on a COVID vaccine, most people would expect that space missions would be postponed or cancelled. But you argue there’s a powerful reason behind this continuing race to Mars.


Yes. It’s history and politics.


The twentieth century was dominated by Russia and the U.S. racing into space and eventually landing on the moon. But before the Americans left the first footprints on the moon, the two competing nations negotiated through the U.N. Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to sign the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.


At the time Russia and the U.S. were already dependent on satellites for intelligence gathering and surveillance and were already testing anti-satellite weapons in space. And because other countries saw the potential for their own uses of space in the future, the treaty was immediately supported internationally. This is still the key treaty for space activities: no country can claim ownership of space.



So while the world has been going about all of its Earth-bound activities, our dependence on space has reached the point where space now plays a critical role in the lives of all people?


Absolutely. Because so much of our lives depend on space-based services, the race for technological dominance in space is linked to economic and military dominance. Additionally, politics today looks very different from the last century.


Today China and Russia contest the U.S. financially, militarily and technologically in all areas, including space. It hasn’t always made the headlines we see today, but all three have been facing each other off with anti-satellite weapons tests for several decades. Now the U.S. has even created a Space Force.


India built an impressive space programme in a very short time at a fraction of the budget of the traditional powers and shocked the world in 2019 with a successful anti-satellite weapons test. The UAE has been asserting itself as leading the Arab world in space, establishing a national space agency in 2014, and now being the first Arab nation to launch a Mars mission.


So, the success of these three missions won’t just help us understand Mars and its atmosphere. While the Earth grapples with COVID-19, superpowers and rising powers are racing to Mars to prove technological prowess today so they can be in the running for political, military and ideological dominance throughout the next decades of this century.


They won’t be claiming ownership of space—that’s still unlawful—but claiming dominance in space and on Earth is not.





Kathleen Sweetapple
Contact phone:02 6125 0065