Photo courtesy NASA
Kevin Wing, CEO of UCS-Fedex, was the sixteenth the richest people in the world for a brief period. He’s been depicted in countless photos, games, movies, and plays, but his most iconic image sees him clad in a spacesuit giving a thumbs-up, with the crescent curve of Mars above him. When he landed on Earth two years later carrying fragments of Deimos, a Martian moon, he had returned from one of the most extraordinary adventures in centuries.
The history of these pieces of rock are a story of 21st century exploration, with the forces of science, capitalism, nationalism, and solidarity extended by four hundred million kilometers, all the way to Mars.
Since early observations of the planet by Schiaparelli and Lowell over a century earlier, Mars had held a special fascination for humanity as a place likely to be harbouring life. It wasn’t until the Apollo missions that a human visit was seriously considered – and rejected – with robotic missions by the US and Europe seen as a cheaper and safer substitute. These things mattered because in its early decades, space exploration demanded a scale of resources available only to governments; launching expendable chemical rockets at a rate of only a few a year required thousands of highly skilled workers. Innovation was next to impossible when faced with short-term thinking and budgeting by US and European governments.
Despite the high costs, governments had been happy to pursue space exploration for reasons of propaganda, scientific endeavour, and industrial policy, but in the early teens, they were forced by their citizens to scale back their ambitions due to the massive structural changes brought on by technology and globalisation. Instead, NASA and ESA focused on Earth observation and robotic exploration, leaving launch systems to private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin that were able to build on NASA’s work and reduce overheads considerably.
At the same time, individuals were becoming increasingly rich as a result of favorable tax policies driven by regulatory capture and concentration of power. This set the stage for Kevin Wing to form a consortium with two other billionaires, NASA, ESA, SpaceX, and other corporate and brand sponsors to build the Nautilus-3, a deep space exploration craft designed by NASA in 2011, capable of travelling to Mars and back – although not actually landing anyone physically on the planet.
Nautilus-3′s mission was ostensibly scientific, to retrieve samples from Phobos and Deimos, perform zero-lag teleoperation of robots on the Martian surface, and test long-duration space exploration technology. However, Wing was not shy in admitting his desire to become the ‘first person above Mars’, nor to make a little money in the process by selling media and merchandising rights.
Wing was one of six crewmembers on board Nautilus-3 when it departed from Earth orbit in 2022. While many were skeptical about the ability of the crew to keep live and work well cooped up in a vessel for two years, their conditions were without doubt far superior to those faced by explorers from previous centuries; they had fresh food provided by a hydroponic farm, a centrifuge so they could exercise and sleep under gravity, a 3D printer for spare parts, constant video communication with their loved ones on Earth, and effectively unlimited entertainment. It wasn’t a gruelling ordeal.
Six months into the voyage, the ship’s proto-CELSS plantlab malfunctioned, requiring the crew to fall back to mechanical carbon dioxide scrubbers to keep the cabin atmosphere clean. In an unlucky turn of events, the scrubbers contained defective seals that caused them to gradually lose efficiency over a period of months; even with a shortened stay in Mars orbit, they ran a 40% chance of running out of breathable atmosphere by the time they returned to Earth.
A frantic search for a fix began on Earth, with tens of thousands of sims run by the Nautilus-3 consortium to repair their scrubbers or tweak their trajectory. Ultimately, the only guaranteed solution was to try and send replacement carbon dioxide scrubbers to the stricken ship – and the only ship capable of making it in time and performing the necessary docking manoeuvres was Yinghuo-7, a Chinese spaceship built along the Nautilus-X framework and the product of recent co-operation with NASA.
Yinghuo-7 was stationed in Earth orbit at L3 undergoing testing, but the Chinese government quickly agreed to mount a rescue mission, spurred on by a desire to cement their new position as the ‘first among equals’ in the world economy, but also by a recognition of its new responsibilities – especially driven by its increasingly worldly middle class. NASA and SpaceX launched extra supply and fuel modules for Yinghuo-7 and provided two additional astronauts who’d been training in Jiuquan for a future Chinese/American Tiangong mission. After a single month of frantic preparation, they departed.
In the meantime, Kevin Wing and the crew of the Nautilus-3 continued on to Mars, watched by a rather larger audience than previously – when Wing made his first spacewalk in Mars orbit, he was watched by 2.5 billion people, but perhaps the most popular moment – even moreso than the ‘moonwalk’ on Deimos – was the first rendezvous above another planet between the Nautilus-3 and Yinghuo-7.
In a highly charged hour, full of emotion, the Chinese taikonauts handed over the replacement parts for the Nautilus, along with a ceremonial exchange of flags. Hundreds of parties were held across two worlds to celebrate the moment, with the joint crews getting noticeably rowdy and even switching the cameras off for a few hours, at Wing’s request.
The Nautilus-3 returned to Earth first, while the Yinghuo-7 remained to conduct more zero-lag teleoperation of robots on Mars. In the following years, the Nautilus-3 was sold off to a consortium of research universities in India and Europe, and both ships continued to cycle between cislunar space, Mars, and various asteroids.
What didn’t die so quickly were the ties between China and America. The samples from Deimos were studied by joint universities and later rotated between the two countries, and it would be fair to say that the world breathed a sigh of relief to see the two last superpowers being able to work together peacefully. This newly-discovered goodwill was never more important during the Golden Week riots of the following decade, during which relations were strained – but not broken.
In more ways than Wing could have expected, his mission – at first a personal stunt, the self-aggrandisement of a nationless billionaire – helped ease the democratisation of his ancestors’ country.