It's usually the assumption that the first man or woman to first set foot on Martian dirt will be American. After all, the only men to walk on the lunar surface were employed by NASA.
This assumption could be turned on its head if a recent announcement by the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) follows through.
Speaking to reporters at an air show near Moscow on Wednesday, Jean-Jacques Dordain said ESA and Roskosmos (the Russian space agency) would "carry out the first flight to Mars together," according to RIA Novosti.
Naturally, there's no promise of a target date, but Dordain's announcement underscores an important fact: to get humanity to Mars, international collaboration will be desirable. Perhaps even essential.
Interestingly, one of the key deciding factors for the joint ESA/Roscosmos proposition appears to be the Russian Mars500 project. Mars500 is a 520-day simulated "mission" to the Red Planet being run by Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems. ESA is also involved in the project.
In November, the crew of Mars500 are set to be released from confinement when they "return to Earth." The crew of six men (controversially, no women were selected to participate) are currently enduring the confines of a 550-cubic-meter (19,400-cubic-foot) mock spaceship, studying the physiological and psychological impact of an 18 month return trip to Mars.
As I discussed in a recent Discovery News article (read "To Make Mankind Great Again, Push to Mars"), a huge amount of energy is being directed into planning for mankind's "next great step," but politics and money all-too-often gets in the way of any real progress being made.
Perhaps ESA and Roscosmos can sidestep the worst financial issues by combining resources and setting their international sights on Mars. After all, landing a human on an alien world should be an international effort, but whether or not this happens remains to be seen.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Doug Ellison