Sketch of Elon Musk
Lewis3222's sketch of Elon Musk

“I have a message in a time bottle for the candidate who wins the 2016 election for the U.S. presidency. There’s opportunity to make a bold statement on the occasion of the July 2019 50th anniversary of the first humans to land on the moon: 'I believe this nation should commit itself, within two decades, to commencing American permanence on the planet Mars.'”

- Buzz Aldrin, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration

I often wonder if the ancients of old, the hunters and gatherers of the villages that sprung from the savannahs, ever questioned what life really meant. The ancients, our ancestors, had no written information, no measured data, no Internet, no science, just their guts and instincts to guide them. What meaning did they make of the world around them? After the day’s hunt, when they returned back with their brothers to the village carrying the boars and deers, preparing it to be cooked, what did they think of, dream of? When they watched as the night feast was being prepared, as the meat was being cooked over the amber flame, as the children played and the wives laughed, whom did they give thank to?

Under the sky, when they looked up at the stars above, the explosion of glistening confetti over a dark blanket, did they think of something Greater than themselves creating the world that they lived in? Let’s say if a comet passed by them and they all witnessed it, without knowing what it was. Imagine how divine they might feel at witnessing the comet. Better yet, let’s imagine if one day they saw a large Red in the sky. Would they think it was another object in the sky, or would they think it was their Gods being angry with them.

Perhaps the ancients of lost history had it easy when they first saw Mars, for believing it was the wrath of the Gods is much simpler than visualizing it as the fourth planet to orbit our Sun. Perhaps they didn’t have it easy, and we do, for knowing what Mars is. But one thing is for sure. That Red in the sky has forever been in the memories of the ancients as history has passed and times have brought upon them the rise and fall of civilizations and ideas.

Mars has always been with us, a reminder that there’s something larger than our everyday live, that even though we may feel like it is, the world isn’t even figuratively flat, and that we are balancing within the vast cosmos of the fabric of space and time.

Ancient Tribes
Ancient tribes under the stars

The dreams of the ancients, of the philosophers, of the explorers, of the poets and the writers and the believers and the fighters, have continued to pass the torch on to the next generation, until we now start witnessing what exciting time we live in.

The current race to Mars may be thought of now as another game of thrones, but it is far more than that. This is truly a tale that has unfolded over millenias, where the prophecies of old inspired the youth of now. It is an epic story of dreams and destruction, of competition and collaboration, of innovation and monopolies. The players in this want to be the pioneers, the glorious, the saviors, the winners, but most importantly, the game changers.

The successful series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and the mainstream hit TV Show Game of Thrones by HBO offers viewers a world of dragons and direwolves, of betrayals and alliances, of the world ending and of kingdoms prevailing. It’s probably the one thing (other than Mars) that you can get me to talk about for hours and hours, especially the novels.

To any techie or space aficionado or geek, the medieval and fantasy world offers us an escapism that is still grounded in a critical analysis of our society. It should come as no surprise then that currently, in our reality, we are witnessing something similar in the race to Mars. It is now the Age of Mars, promising with it a new space race to reach the glory of landing the first humans on Mars. Of the many players trying to occupy the Martian throne, the most legendary house of them all, NASA, is planning on doing it by 2030.

A dragon has been born to aide this legendary house in the guise of SpaceX, bringing with it promising technology and more efficiency. Across the pond, Russia’s Roscosmos clings to the memories of a more successful Soviet forefather as it collaborates with the ESA to push to the Red Planet. On the vast lands of Asia, powerful players like China’s CNSA eye our neighboring planet, promising to put humans there. India and Japan have missions of their own to help in research and science on Mars, as well as the UAE, bring a multilayered play of various nations of Planet Earth.

We will explore all those warring factions, allies, and smaller players in the struggle to take over the throne, sending the first humans to settle there. I’ve taken the liberty to design a fantasy map of each faction and their location on what would resemble a terraformed (and medieval) Mars. If any of you geologists want to point out errors in my design, then please forgive me. I’m a writer, first and foremost. I invite anyone with better talents than me to design a cooler map if they wish. I’ll display it here. For me, this is a purely “artistic” design, which I’ve used Inkarnate for (try them out, they’re in Beta and free). Having addressed all that, we can begin looking at the map.

The Map of Houses

Fictional Map of Mars
Map of Mars, by yours truly

In this futuristic Areoan society, the great Houses of Mars have conquered and terraformed the land of Red. In the peninsula north of Mariner Valley lies the golden warriors of SpaceX, driving innovation and technological progress for all the other houses to use. To their south lies long term allies NASA and their colony, the most noble and ancient house of the entire realm, the kings of space.

In the Euroscosmos lives the unified alliance of once great medieval realm of majesties and graces and queendoms, who are now focusing entirely on the scientific method to help gather more information on Mars. To the South, lies the dynastic dragon rulers of China, bringing with them the lower cost tools and technology completely optimized to make further discoveries on Mars, if not main contenders to the throne.

The houses of Arabia and mighty India dwell among the giants, profiting through data gathering and having their stake in the Red Planet. Visitors flock to see the ruins of what was once a ULA Post, now a dinosaur among space travelers. In this painted future, only one claimed the Throne of being the first to land on Mars.

Table of Contents

  1. NASA
  2. SpaceX
  3. Chinese National Space Agency
  4. United Launch Alliance
  5. European Space Agency - Roscosmos
  6. Indian Space Research Organization
  7. UAE Space Agency
  8. Looking Forward


When I first heard of NASA, I remember it as an elementary school boy looking at an image of Neil Armstrong in an astronaut suit in social studies class. I remember the blue logo that lay on his arm with the letters NASA, and I always questioned what it was. Such an easy and pleasant word, right? NASA. It always felt like it meant something great, ambitious even.

NASA definitely needs no introduction in this post, and if you really never heard of it before, then I really want you to reach out to me, as I have never met a Mars fan who never heard of NASA and still managed to find my blog in the deep universe of the Internet!

Neil on the Moon
Neil Armstrong on the Moon

NASA in a way is the most influential and richest house in the entire map. With a war chest coming up to $18.4 billion a year (which is still not enough, if you pay attention to Neil deGrasse Tyson). The Lannisters with their wealth and the Baratheons with their power couldn’t match NASA in its reach out there to the black beyond. NASA can perform several robotic operations a year all over the Solar System, so in a way, it’s the main leader in our venture into the cosmos.

Like any influential leader, the only way to secure your future is with a vision and a plan that you can unite your people behind, and that’s what NASA intends to do with it’s planned Journey to Mars. You can read an overview of the Journey to Mars, but if you don’t want to read all of it, we can get to the gist of what it truly means.

NASA is preparing the technologies and requirements needed to send humanity to land on an asteroid in the year 2025 and Mars in 2030s. While having a wealth of information from exploring Mars via robotic probes and landers and rovers over the past 40 years, NASA has also been preparing for the voyage by sending astronauts to Low Earth Orbit to board the International Space Station. Aboard the ISS, many experiments are conducted to study the effects of microgravity on the human body. Not only that, but the we can assume each mission to the ISS as a testing ground for conducting deep space missions in the future, Mars and beyond.

We have to admire NASA here because it’s playing not just the long game, but the let’s-do-it-right-once-we-have-the-data way. However, many would argue that NASA would have reached Mars a long time ago has the Space Race not ended with landing a man on the moon but continued on until they reach Mars back in the late-sixties. Back then, funding for NASA was enormous, compared to the small portion allocated to it today. With the extra funding, NASA would help us all reach a true galactic civilization in no time (ok, maybe not galactic civilization status just yet, but definitely a planetary colony status).

Space Launch Systems

What is so important about NASA’s current plans to the Journey to Mars? Why, Space Launch Systems, of course! The SLS, also known as NASA’s secret weapon for the Martian surface, is set to be tested as a proving ground to the journey when it launches in 2018. After all, you did know that we retired the Space Shuttle and are relying on others for delivering payloads and missions beyond Earth.

SLS is NASA’s comeback moment, housing the Orion spacecraft which will carry astronauts to asteroids and beyond. Furthermore, Solar Electric Propulsion is vital for continued cargo delivery to Mars. NASA, throughout its partnership with other countries and private space companies, will prove to be the main pioneer in reaching the Red Planet along with SpaceX.

NASA comes from a legacy of great men, from Buzz Aldrin all the way to Carl Sagan and so many more. Its expertise is unmatched among the arena, being a strong ally that any of the other Houses would be lucky to have.

Charlie Bolden
Charlie Bolden addressing House of Congress

At the helm of the current NASA Administration is Charlie Bolden, who clearly understands the importance of Mars. Here’s an excerpt from his blog about why the Journey to Mars is important:

“NASA’s Journey to Mars is about more than sending American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s; it’s about bringing people together here on Earth. It’s about strengthening the American economy and with it the economic security of families throughout our country. It’s also about strengthening our friendships across sectors and also across national borders. This is why I’m fond of reminding virtually every audience to whom I speak that sending humans to Mars requires all hands on deck – government, industry, academic and international partners and citizen scientists – we need everybody.”

- Charlie Bolden

It goes without saying that NASA will have a large, if not dominant presence, in the race to the Red Planet, and their future missions should be eyed closely, especially with the new updates on the Mars 2020 Rover.


SpaceX Droneship

If the land ever witnessed an Age of Heroes, it is because of SpaceX and the phoenix arising from the ashes to conquer the other houses. SpaceX might be but an infant compared to the might of NASA and the funding provided by other houses, but this private space company has proved time and again that having a big war chest is but a small factor in becoming a space entity.

In SpaceX, the land of the talented innovators, led by Elon Musk of Tesla and Paypal fame, they saw reaching Mars as a different approach than the rest. Mars was an important milestone to reach initially to get people to care about space travel and colonization. It all started with growing a plant on Mars, and a dream of reaching that goal. But then, it became apparent that leaving Earth wasn’t very sustainable, so they needed a new approach to get there. They started by bringing the cost down of a launch from Earth to orbit. Their solution? Reusable rockets, baby.

Let's take a step back to the early days of the company. SpaceX was founded in June 2002. When we talked about "growing plants" earlier, it's a little bit more than a symbolic endeavor. Initially, early on in 2001, Musk envisioned a “Mars Oasis”, a little experiment to get a mini greenhouse launched to Mars and having plants grow on Martian soil, to facilitate the growth of life there. It was then that he realized how ridiculously expensive going to Mars was, even if you had a shit load of money. Something needed to be done to bring the costs down. Off did our favorite entrepreneur travel to Russia, land of lost nukes and beautiful women, to buy a few ICBMs with Silicon Valley buds. The offer he received, about $8 million, was too ridiculously expensive, that he told the Commies to go eff themselves and decided to build a company to design and manufacture the rockets we need.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to SpaceX.

Falcon 9 Rocket
Falcon 9 Rocket

If SpaceX had a sigil, I’d say it was the Falcon. The company has built several cost effective rockets of the Falcon family: Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and the Falcon Heavy. The company, along with the likes of Tesla, is really showing us a huge sneak peek into the what our future holds. All hail Musk, the Prince of Space Travel!

There are a lot of interesting things about the next steps for SpaceX. One is a planned unmanned launch to Mars, a mission that will be coordinated with NASA. The mission is known as the Red Dragon and will take place in 2018, so it’s gonna happen very soon! This will be the ultimate test for SpaceX, the culmination of Musk’s original unblogged SpaceX Master Plan, if you will, except here, we aren’t gonna be planting a greenhouse on the Red Planet, just actually landing there!

Another mission we need to look forward to is a crewed space launch to the International Space Station with a Dragon capsule as part of NASA’s offered contract for manned missions there. This will be another important milestone for SpaceX, as it will help them gather data and tests in preparation for a 2024 manned crew launch to Mars.

Musk Astronaut Suit
SpaceX Astronaut Suit concept

What I’m interested in is how the establishment of a Martian will happen under SpaceX, given that it’s a private company and not a state. One of the most likely allies it’ll have is a NASA colony, or if there would be a collaboration, and there’s no reason not to have one, then I forecast a joint venture between SpaceX, NASA, ESA and Roscosmos, being separated from the Chinese base (sigh). I really would like to see a unified Martian base contributed to by all the delegates, but I’m using the International Space Station as a benchmark for this “prediction”.

Chinese National Space Administration

Taikonaut Saluting
Chinese Taikonaut Saluting

In the lands of the Far East, a dragon stirs, slowly waking up from its eternal slumber. A dynasty that will kiss the cosmos arises, at its helm the might and hunger of a military-led China.

While much of what most of you and I know about the CNSA stems from Andy Weir's The Martian, Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it best when he says that the biggest fantasy about the film is the U.S. and China collaborating on space together. This is because your friendly Congress has banned NASA from collaborating with the Chinese, in a move that it says would decrease the likelihood of espionage.

There’s a report prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission titled “China Dream, Space Dream”, which is over a 100 pages report that I won’t be discussing here. What I’ll be talking about is the conclusion made by the report, which is super fucking interesting. Here’s a little excerpt from the conclusion:

“Even if U.S. space power continues to improve in absolute terms, China’s rapid advance in space technologies will result in relative gains that challenge the U.S. position in space. The real question concerning U.S. competitiveness may not be whether Chinese satellites and launchers are the equal of their U.S. competitors, but whether their products provide sufficient value. A Chinese industry that can offer moderately priced but sufficiently capable products may be able to compete effectively in the market. Similarly, a Chinese space program that can provide a good enough solution to deter or raise the costs of military intervention for an adversary may be all that is necessary. If the current trajectory of China’s space program continues, by 2030 the China will have a new line of advanced launch vehicles, a robust, space-based C4ISR network made up of imagery satellites with resolutions well below one meter, and more capable electronic intelligence communication satellites linked together by data-relay satellites, in addition to a global satellite-navigation system that may gradually approach current GPS standards. At this point, China could also likely have made operational a number of advanced counterspace capabilities, including kinetic-kill, directed-energy, and co-orbital ASAT capabilities as well as some form of missile defense system. In addition, China’s more capable satellites and launch vehicles could not only compete with U.S., European, and Russian industry but also provide new avenues for cooperation. This could be especially true if China were to conduct manned lunar missions.”

Let’s backpedal a bit on the Chinese space program. The CNSA was established in 1993, making it a relatively new program when you stack it up against the other big Houses. Chinese astronauts are called Taikonauts (yay for the many different terms for men in space). A lot of people had their eyes on China and its access to cheap resources and material, making it a player to fear.

That was until two things shook up its Mars mission and destroyed Chinese morale. The first was the Yinghuo-1 mission, which was going to be the first Chinese spacecraft to orbit and explore Mars. The plan was for a two year orbit of Mars, studying the atmosphere, ionosphere, and magnetic field, or what you’d call a mission to spy on American spacecraft technologies (kidding, China). The issue was that the Chinese contracted the Russians for the space launch at the time, right out of Kazakhstan.

The launch sequence got messed up, so the spacecraft never left Earth’s orbit, continuing on an orbital decay until it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Lesson learned here? Maybe don’t rely so much on Soviet-era technology.

The next major Fuck-You the Chinese got was from the Indians and their successful launch of Mangalyaan (sanskrit for Marscraft), the first successful spacecraft launch by the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) on their first attempt. What a blow it must have been for the Chinese, who probably saw the Indian space program as lacking the type of funding China got gather. It’s an interesting rivalry between the two most populous countries on Earth. The Chinese boasted that they’ll be the first nation to land men on Mars a while back, and now they’re hoping they can land a rover there.

Nevertheless, the Chinese, if they did successfully launch a spacecraft or lander to Mars, will pave the way to an interesting rivalry with the West, fueled by their military spending on a solely space endeavour. The Chinese are eyeing Mars, knowing it holds a strategic importance for the future. Their current plan is to launch a rover in 2020 (would be funny if their rover and NASA’s 2020 rover high fived each when they get there). Other aspects of the mission are a lander and a probe that will study the Martian atmosphere. If those go well by 2020, then we shall see a major Chinese comeback.

United Launch Alliance

Tory Bruno
Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA

Like a true company of sellswords, one can draw parallel similarities between the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Martin’s Golden Company in A Song of Ice And Fire series. The United Launch Alliance is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin’s and Boeing’s space division. Historically, they controlled a tight monopoly on winning government contracts for space launches, until SpaceX came into the picture.

Let’s take a look at ULA’s resume. They boast over 100 launches with a perfect success rate, making them popular with NASA. However, the issue lies with their rocket, the Atlas V, which uses Russian RD-180 engines from Roscosmos. The main critic of the ULA’s purchasing of Russian engines has been John McCain, claiming that it feeds “Putin’s cronies” and that an American rocket replacement needs to be used instead. Sadly, the ULA has no such rocket at the moment. The issue isn’t the technology to build such a rocket but the time it takes to do so, which will really affect the timeline of space launch contracts awarded by NASA to the ULA.

Atlas V Rocket
Atlas V Rocket Launch

The challenge the ULA has is mainly from its competition with SpaceX, which has been able to decrease the cost of space launch dramatically by keeping the entire operations and manufacturing in house, compared to the contract deals ULA has on its technology. To paint a better picture, the ULA charges about 3 times the cost to launch a rocket to NASA compared to SpaceX, about $380 million to SpaceX’s $133 million, which is a huge fucking deal to the U.S. government and to NASA.

The cozy relationship the ULA enjoyed with the U.S. government is an interesting one of the military-industrial complex, where there’s a monopoly over the contracts awarded for space launch, and in return, many U.S. government officials can “retire” and work for ULA later on. As anyone can tell you about a monopoly, when you are the only player in town, there’s no need to improve yourself and bring costs down, so you end up being super comfortable with what you have.

SpaceX is just destroying that cozy relationship in the best most entrepreneurial way possible, by offering better technology that is made in the U.S.A. and that can be done at the fraction of the cost. Things also changed when SpaceX was awarded military space launch contracts, breaking the ULA monopoly (Oh snaps!). The ULA brought a new CEO, Tory Bruno, to fix their mess and restructure the company. To his credit, he did seek to decrease the costs of launching to space to directly compete better with SpaceX, yet realistically, ULA needs a miracle in order to actually compete on the same level. Nevertheless, because of their relationship with the U.S. government, they will remain a player in the game for a while, perhaps even aiding in launches to Mars in the future as they did in the past. However, unless they can decrease the costs down, SpaceX is likely to eat up most of the contracts in the years to come.

European Space Agency - Roscosmos

ESA Roscosmos
ESA and Roscosmos strike an agreement

Roscosmos, born out of the older Soviet Union Space Program, bears similarities to an older House, Targaryen if you will, or perhaps a lesser one such as Baratheon maybe, seeking glory, unseating kings every now and then, but always in need of help. That’s why the partnership between Europe’s ESA and Roscosmos is such an exciting endeavor, especially related to the ExoMars missions.

While at the moment, they are purely scientific missions, such as reading atmospheric gases and stuff, and it’s not very clear if they have plans to send humans to Mars in the future. The ESA-Roscosmos alliance, however, bears an interesting prospect, one of having their foot in the door and getting and securing a piece of the action in the long run, and potentially having colonies on Mars way after everyone else showed up.

The objective of the mission is the establishment of whether life existed on Mars, but if the program is a success, then there’s nothing stopping a larger ESA-Roscosmos alliance, especially on manned missions to Mars. Of course, I believe, they’d need to contract that deal with a company like SpaceX, or perhaps a future NASA Mars manned mission, where they’ll include the European astronauts and Russian cosmonauts (this different terminology for spacemen is annoying and politically inspired, just saying).

I think it is vital to see this alliance as a complimentary wing to any future Mars colony being established on the Red Planet, as they seem more of a support role than a leadership role, invested heavier on the scientific part of the mission (not that anyone else isn’t).

Whether we are going to see the revival of an age-old power or the support of a familiar ally in Euroscosmos, only time can tell on the race to Mars.

Indian Space Research Organization

ISRO Clean Room
ISRO assembly in a clean room

At the moment, the Indians are kicking some major Chinese ass by a long shot, and rightfully so. Consider this: India has reached Mars, has a spacecraft orbiting Mars, and is the first nation to ever do so on first attempt. China? Nowhere close. While we believe the Chinese will have a MAJOR role to play in the future of Mars, they are all just empty talk now and they won’t mean anything until China reaches Mars, even if it sends a spacecraft.

Mangalyaan, which is a cool way of saying Marscraft, is currently orbiting Mars as we speak, paving the way to newer missions like the Mangalyaan 2. The cost of the first mission sits at a cool $73 million, which is incredible. We really have to give it to the Indians for being able to reduce the complexity of the mission and the spacecraft, still be able to conduct scientific experiments, and be cost-effective at the same time.

The Mangalyaan 2, which currently has no updates, is planned to be launched in 2020, and will also be an orbiter, but it might also include a lander and a rover, so we will have to wait and see. What I’d like to see is if the Indians can get to Mars before China does in 2020, even if by a few days (hey, this is a race to Mars!) so willing to take bets if you are.

What I can foresee happening, based on a signed agreement between the French and the Indians on cooperation on space missions, is a potential collaboration with Euroscosmos in the future as an entity. It’s more of a wait and see thing, but India has proven already that it’s a big player in this game.

UAE Space Agency

UAE Space Agency
UAE sets out the Mars Mission

Ah, the Emiratis. They’re interesting players in this game, not because of their financial resources (it dwarfs in comparison to NASA, let’s be real) but because of their intentions and plans. From the UAE Mars Mission website, we can tell that their Hope probe is a scientific research experiment to study Mars as it orbits it, which is generally a good thing, since that data will be shared with everyone.

One other aspect of this mission is that it’s the first Arabic and Islamic mission to Mars, and if you’ve read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars like I’ve been telling you to, you’ll know that the Arabs on Mars are very influential players, so this really intrigues me. The Hope mission will be planned, managed, and executed inside the U.A.E., which is a smart move for them as it will leave behind more experienced personnel and grows talent.

What’s interesting about the Arabs, if we follow the assumption that the mission will be successful in 2021, is what are the next steps? They have the money to invest in the infrastructure to support a Mars colony, but will they do so in the later future? One can only guess at this point. For now, however, they should prove interesting to keep an eye on. Who knows, maybe they’ll build Mars’ largest aquarium a hundred years from now.

Looking Forward

Martian Colony
A future Martian colony

What is important about the race to Mars and to claim the Martian throne is that it’ll fuel lots of development and technological growth among all the players, which always bodes well for our society. Sadly, the world will only look at the first House that arrives on Mars as the claimed victor, and not the many Houses that have helped pave the way for that goal.

Some of you might wonder why I haven’t included Mars One in this post, and I’d like to say that the only credit I can give them is helping reignite the interest in Mars. Other than that, I don’t like to deal in fantasy stories, so I decided to keep them out. Call me biased, but it’s my choice. I will however write at some point about Mars One and analyze all their claims, so stay tuned to that.

Looking back at the spacecraft missions to Mars, which you can read about in my other blog post, one has to admit that NASA has the biggest pressure to get to Mars, since it has pioneered a lot of the discovery of what we know about the planet. Look at Mariner-4 and how it gave us an idea of what Mars is.

While NASA seems like the most obvious winner, one must not underestimate the wild card that is China and what will happen in 2020. It will be a battle of science and glory till the bitter end. And that is only if SpaceX doesn’t swoop in and land on Mars first. I think most important takeaway is that, whoever wins the Game of Martian Thrones, Planet Earth will be the ultimate winner. But in case a social media raven hasn’t informed you already, a Martian winter is coming.