For a brief time Kevin Wing, CEO of UCS-FedEx, was the world’s 16th richest person. His face was captured in countless photos, games, movies, and plays, but the most enduring image of Wing must be him clad in a spacesuit, giving a thumbs-up as the crescent curve of Mars drifts above him. When he landed on Earth two years later, casually sipping from a glass of water refined from Deimos, a Martian moon, he had returned from one of humanity’s most extraordinary adventures in centuries.
The history of Wing’s glass of water is a story of 21st-century exploration, with the forces of science, capitalism, nationalism, and solidarity propelling humanity 400 million kilometres — all the way to Mars.
Since Schiaparelli and Lowell’s early observations of the planet in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mars has held a special fascination for humanity as a potential source of alien life. It wasn't until the Apollo Moon missions that a human visit to Mars was seriously considered, but the sheer expense meant that for decades robotic missions were the only politically acceptable option. Early space exploration demanded a scale of resources available only to rich governments; launching just a few expendable chemical rockets required thousands of highly skilled workers, and advances in propulsion technology were halting and slow owing to short-term thinking and budgeting.
Governments were happy to pursue space exploration for reasons of propaganda, science, and industrial policy, but in the early 21st century they were forced to scale back their ambitions due to economic pressures. NASA and ESA turned their efforts towards Earth observation and robotic exploration, leaving the development of launch systems to private companies such as SpaceX, who built on NASA's previous work and moved aggressively to reduce costs.
This is where Kevin Wing stepped in. In 2020, Wing formed a consortium with two other billionaires, plus NASA, SpaceX, and various corporate sponsors, to build the Nautilus-3. The Nautilus-3 was a deep-space exploration craft designed by NASA in 2011, the first ever capable of travelling to Mars and back — although not able to land anyone on the planet’s surface.
Wing's mission for the Nautilus-3 was ostensibly scientific: he wanted to retrieve samples from Phobos and Deimos, perform low-latency teleoperation of robots on the Martian surface, and to test long-duration space exploration technology. However, he wasn't shy in admitting his desire to become the “first person above Mars”, nor was he against making a little money in the process by selling media and merchandising rights.
Wing was one of six American crewmembers on board Nautilus-3 when it departed from Earth orbit in 2024. Many scientists were skeptical about the crew's ability to remain psychologically healthy while cooped up in a vessel for two years, but their living 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 (thus avoiding muscle atrophy and bone density loss), constant video communication with their loved ones on Earth, and effectively unlimited VR entertainment.
It was hardly a gruelling ordeal, but it wasn't without mishap.
Six months into the voyage, the ship's controlled ecological life-support system, Plant-Lab, malfunctioned, requiring the crew to resort 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. The ship's 3D printers weren't capable of replacing the seals, and even with a shortened stay in Mars orbit, they ran an even chance of running out of breathable atmosphere by the time they returned to Earth.
A frantic search for a fix began on Earth, with the Nautilus-3 consortium and its volunteers running tens of thousands of rescue-and-repair sims. Ultimately, the only guaranteed solution was to physically 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 same framework as the Nautilus-X, the product of recent CNSA 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 and responsibilities as 'first among equals' in the world economy (and it was a good opportunity to distract its increasingly fractious middle-class). NASA and SpaceX launched extra supply and fuel modules for Yinghuo-7 and provided two astronauts who had been training in Jiuquan for a future Chinese/American Tiangong mission. After a single month of frantic preparation, they departed.
Meanwhile, Wing and the crew of the Nautilus-3 continued on to Mars, apparently unfazed by their potential doom; when Wing made his first spacewalk in Mars orbit, he was watched by 2.5 billion people. But the mission's most memorable moment — even more dramatic than Chawla and White’s subsequent 'moonwalk' on Deimos — was the rendezvous between the Nautilus-3 and Yinghuo-7, the first above a distant planet.
In an hour full of emotion, the Chinese taikonauts ceremoniously exchanged flags and handshakes with the crew of the Nautilus and handed over the replacement parts. Thousands of 'rendezvous parties' were held across the world in celebration. Even the taikonauts and astronauts joined in the festivities, with Wing managing to 'accidentally' switch the cameras off for a few hours.
The Nautilus-3 returned to Earth first, while the Yinghuo-7 remained in Mars orbit to conduct more research. 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.
While the two ships faded from public view, the ties between China and the US remained strong. The events aboard the Nautilus-3 and Yinghuo-7 bound these last two superpowers together more closely than ever before, to the relief of the world, with the samples from Deimos studied by an international consortium and joint US-China space-training missions increasing in number and complexity. This newly invigorated goodwill was never more important than during the Golden Week riots the following decade, during which relations were strained — but not broken.
A billionaire’s personal stunt had transformed into a symbol of genuine harmony. If that wasn't worth seeing Wing waste the most expensive glass of water in human history, what else was?