The Martian Race (1999) is a SF novel about the race for the Mars Prize. When NASA submitted a budget of 450 billion dollars to go to Mars, Congress suffered from sticker shock and turned down the project. Instead, the United States and other Western countries offered a prize of 30 billion dollars for the first voyage that accomplished specified goals.
NASA continued to prepare for a voyage to Mars in 2016, but used the Mars Direct model instead of the previous boondoggle version. Step by step, NASA built and tested their equipment. They sent an Earth Return Vehicle to Mars to manufacture methane for the return voyage. But their launch of an orbital vehicle to test the centrifugal force idea was a spectacular failure, destroying the equipment and killing the crew. Congress canceled the NASA Mars program.
Still, a private Consortium was set up by billionaire John Axelrod to win the Mars Prize. The Consortium started hiring ex-NASA astronauts and buying surplus NASA equipment. But they downsized the mission to four astronauts instead of the previous six crewmembers.
In this novel, Julia, Viktor, Marc and Raoul survive the six month trip and aerobraking to land in Gusev crater. Shaped like a tuna can, the two-story habitat is a strange landing vehicle, but adequate living quarters. They have brought a pressurized rover, but also convert the two onsite vehicles to manual control.
Raoul spends most of his time repairing the ERV, which had landed with enough lateral vector to damage the engine pipes. The peroxide dust and the extreme changes in temperature at the surface have also damaged the ERV components. Although he is able to replace and refit many parts, Raoul doesn't have the tools to do as much as he wishes. The first test results in even more damage. He needs more tools; in fact, he really needs a replacement ERV.
The scientific program continues concurrently with the ERV repairs. Marc explores the surrounding terrain and sets off seismic charges to map the subsurface. They find evidence of surface water, underground caverns, and billion year old bacterial fossils.
As they approaching the end of their stay on the Red Planet, Julia and Viktor discover a venting sinkhole. When they approach it and prepare to descend, they find moisture and water ice. Julia gets a sample off the lip of the hole, but then Viktor slips on the ice and sprains his ankle; he has to be taken back to the hab immediately.
Julia checks her samples in the lab and finds organic residue. Although ruptured by the cold and lower pressure, this residue may have been cellular remains. Unfortunately, the men are focused on the ERV repairs and will not let her return to the vent for more exploration.
This novel depicts the political intrigues surrounding the first manned flight to Mars. Scientific research is peripheral to the political aspects. When Julia confirms the biological origins of her samples, she is told to keep silent about her discoveries.
Unfortunately, politics is the name of the game. Whether public or private, research is funded primarily for the political (and economic) returns. The whole space program is evidence of the political nature of such projects. Even a private venture will have to show a political reward of some nature, probably in entertainment and related products.
This work draws heavily on Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, which in turn was based on Amundsen's trek to the south pole. Of course, Amundsen did not have trivid, email, or direct broadcasts, but he did sell newspaper articles and stamps postmarked at (or near) the Pole. This book shows how the media could dominate private planetary exploration.
Highly recommended for Benford fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of planetary adventure.
-Arthur W. Jordin