According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia will beat NASA to Mars with a mission launching in 2019.
In a documentary on Putin, hosted by reporter and re-election campaign spokesman Andrey Kondrashov, Putin said, “We are planning unmanned and later manned launches, into deep space, as part of a lunar program and for Mars exploration.” He added that “the closest mission is very soon” and claimed that they are “planning to launch a mission to Mars in 2019.”
He also made Russia’s essential strategy behind the mission clear, explaining that “[Russian] specialists will try to make landings on the poles, because there is reason to believe that there can be water there.” This is where he believes that “there is progress to be made,” finally beginning study of “other planets” and “distant space” from the new Martian vantage point.
While Putin did not specify when in 2019 the mission will launch, any time within that year will put them well ahead of the planned NASA mission in a tentative July or August 2020, when Earth and Mars would be best positioned for a landing. Meanwhile, Elon Musk has asserted that he will be testing flights to the same goal in 2019. He believes that SpaceX may even be transporting cargo to Mars by 2022.
It is difficult to know just how close Russia might actually be to putting their proverbial money where Putin’s mouth is. Their only other attempt, via the Fobos-Grunt probe in 2011, was a dismal failure. In any case, humanity’s race toward our mysterious red neighbor is certainly heating up.