Robert Zubrin proposes a very strange idea:
Unlike the 1980s Soviet Union, which could bask in its superpower status, today’s Russia has something to prove. That could mean real trouble. But a joint Russian-American human Mars exploration program would allow Russia to stand before the world as a great nation again, without needing to muscle anyone.
As symbolic gestures go, I suppose this isn’t such a terrible one, but it runs into the problem that neither the U.S. nor Russia has any reason to do this. The “dash and daring of the 1960s space race” existed because of both the novelty of space travel and the competition between Cold War rivals. In the absence of both, there is no desire for manned space exploration, and there is no real reason for a manned mission to Mars. Zubrin compares the cost of a Mars mission with “the trillions that could be wasted in a global confrontation with Russia,” but then there is no reason to have a “global confrontation with Russia,” either. Zubrin is being an alarmist about Russian intentions to try to get attention for this idea.
Besides, the reasons for tensions with Russia aren’t going to be alleviated or erased through a major joint exploration project. Syria isn’t a “side issue” in this respect, but one of the major causes of worsening relations with Moscow over the last two years. Disagreements stemming from Western intervention in other states, Russian foreign policy goals, and persistent American misunderstandings of how Moscow sees the world aren’t going to be resolved or even contained this way. It would be more productive–and cheaper–to cultivate better relations with Russia by cooperating on matters of common interest on this planet rather than frittering away resources on an unnecessary Mars mission.