From the Kennedy Space Center and the Soviet Union's Baikonur Cosmodrome, powerful shuttles and unmanned rockets lift off week after week, bearing construction modules and fuel supplies to a giant space station in earth orbit. There, skilled workers have been assembling the ship that will take the first humans to Mars. After more than a year of construction, the million- pound, ungainly looking spacecraft is ready. With a crew of eight, it separates from the space station and heads for Mars, following the Hohmann ellipse, a space trajectory that may one day be as familiar as a great-circle route over the North Atlantic.
Twenty days later, the blue-white earth has shrunk to a bright dot of light against the background of stars in the eternal night of outer space. Looking back, the crew members are filled with a sense of isolation, a feeling that will never quite leave them during the 280-day outbound leg of their journey. A busy schedule provides some distraction. The space travelers perform scientific experiments, practice taking shelter against solar-flare radiation, tend vegetables in their hydroponic greenhouses, exercise vigorously for several hours each day and tap into digital libraries for music, light reading matter and courses in Martian meteorology and geology.
At first they are able to communicate easily with controllers on earth. But as they head farther into space, the time required for their radio signals to reach earth lengthens to minutes, and the ever widening gap between questions and answers makes conversation difficult. Now, with the earth more than 100 million miles away, Mars is looming in the spacecraft portholes, and the crew begins preparing for a yearlong adventure on another world.
A manned trip to Mars, long the stuff of science fiction, now appears to be just a matter of time. The mystic planet, glowing red and ever brighter in the night skies, is heading toward its closest approach to the earth in 17 years this September, tantalizingly near and beckoning. After a hiatus of a dozen years, during which neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union mounted missions to & Mars, a spacecraft is once again on its way, opening a new era in the exploration of the earth's closest planetary neighbor. During the next decade or so, the Soviets will launch a series of increasingly sophisticated unmanned Mars probes that they hope will culminate in a joint U.S.-Soviet manned mission to the Red Planet by the year 2010.
Last week that trip moved a step closer to reality. From its launching pad at the Baikonur space complex, near Tyuratam in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, a Proton rocket carrying an unmanned spacecraft rose on an orange and blue column of fire that illuminated the night sky. Turning lazily eastward, the rocket sent the craft off on an ambitious mission: to scout Mars and probe Phobos, one of its two tiny moons. Far below at the sprawling complex, technicians swarmed over a sister ship that is scheduled to be launched this week on a similar mission. Exulted Roald Sagdeyev, director of the Soviet Space Research Institute: "Now we can go and drink champagne!"