China's Mars Tianwen-1 Mission Will Answer a 'Heavenly Question'

Only the Soviet Union and the United States have managed to arrive in one piece on Mars. The Soviet lander, the first, touched down in 1971 but stopped communicating almost immediately afterward. While a number of similar missions by other countries have failed, the United States has managed five successful surface landings.

“The Chinese are acutely aware that a lot of people think they are just repeating what others have done in the past,” said Joan S. Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College.

“So they are very careful to do things that No. 1, get them in the record books, like landing and the far side of the moon and, No. 2, allow them to do science that others countries are going to be interested in,” he said.

NASA’s experience allows it greater ambitions. The Perseverance rover, for instance, will carry a helicopter on board, attempting for the first time to fly in the exceedingly thin Martian atmosphere. It will also gather samples for eventual return to Earth.

“The United States is all about building a Mercedes,” Dr. Johnson-Freese said. By contrast, she added, the Chinese program, “is all about just running a Ford. They don’t have a lot of bells and whistles.”

Still, for China, if all goes according to plan, and Tianwen-1 arrives on Mars in February, a stream of images from the planet will at least compete with those coming from Perseverance, which is scheduled to land in February. That will be a publicity coup in itself. Even if China is still playing catch-up, it is trying what no other nation has been able to do except the United States, Dr. Goswami said.

“China realizes that in the world of today and the world of tomorrow, space is going to play a critical role in how humanity organizes itself,” she said, “and so they are looking at all of their missions from that perspective.”

Claire Fu in Beijing contributed research