Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

Preparing for lift-off

≤ Visitors walking near the C-Space Mars simulation base, located in the Gobi Desert in China’s northwest Gansu province

“This is not the space race we knew from the fifties and sixties,” says photographer Matjaž Tančič. “That era was run by secretive white guys working for the governments of Russia and the United States with budgets of many millions of dollars. What we have now is a lot of different organisations joining in from countries across the world. It’s way more collaborative and the barriers to entry are much lower. Everyone can take part.” For the past five years Tančič has been documenting space exploration’s next generation, photographing everyone from people visiting fake space bases to watchmakers creating timepieces that run on Mars hours. “People of every race are involved,” he says. “It’s human nature to push forward: people always want to be the first to discover something, to go where no one else has gone, and this is the last frontier. But what we discover in space can change life here on Earth.”

The vacuum chamber at the AEL facility in Tokyo, Japan. AEL has produced a satellite that can make artificial shooting stars

The food-growing facility at the C-Space Mars simulation base in China


Tančič first became interested in the new space race when he heard that China, where he currently lives, had created C-Space, a simulation base in the Gobi Desert, to prepare for life on Mars. “It’s an incredible thing,” he says. “You are driving through the middle of the desert, seeing nothing but camels. Then you come to this Martian landscape with a space base. It’s like something from a movie.”

China dragged its heels during the first space race. On hearing the news that the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957, Chairman Mao lamented that “we cannot even put a potato into space”. It took until 1970 for China to launch its first satellite and until 2003 for the first Chinese astronaut to enter space. But in recent years the country has been investing heavily in extraplanetary exploration. China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) doesn’t release its figures, but had an estimated annual budget of $12bn in 2022, second only to Nasa’s $23bn expenditure.

The CNSA has spent its money putting rovers on both the Moon and Mars, creating the BeiDou satellite constellation, a rival to the US’s Global Positioning System, and building the Tiangong (‘Heavenly Palace’) space station, which has been taking shape in orbit since 2021.

“The Chinese were late to the game, but they’re catching up extremely fast,” says Tančič. “They were the first country to land on the dark side of the Moon, they’ve landed on Mars, and China is only the third country to build a space station, which soon might be the only one since the International Space Station is likely to get decommissioned.”

In January 2023, China trumped the US in launching a methane-fuelled rocket shortly after unveiling its plans for a lunar base, prompting Nasa administrator Bill Nelson to state that the US is “in a space race” with China. This race is both to the Moon – Nelson warned that China’s lunar mission could result in the country saying “‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory’” – and to Mars, with China believed to be aiming to be the first nation to send astronauts to the red planet. “It’s difficult to know how far along China is, or what’s next because the national space agency is so closely connected with the military,” says Tančič. “But they are not lacking in ambition.”

Chinese students visit the C-Space Project, aka ‘Mars Town’

The Gobi base has two roles in the Mars mission. The first is as a scientific laboratory. The second – and more important, according to Tančič – is as a public relations exercise. “They are conducting some experiments there, particularly around growing food in extreme conditions,” he says. “But the main purpose is for education. I saw lots of tourists and schoolkids being bussed into the place to learn what’s needed if China is to colonise Mars. How people would need to live, what needs to grow, how people would sleep.” Tančič believes the base is as important as some of the more science-focused centres he photographed. “It’s helping to build national pride and interest in space,” he says.

It is often argued that Silicon Valley was born on the Moon – both Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates built off technology used by Nasa’s Apollo missions, and technology developed for space has found plenty of uses on Earth. Tančič believes China wants to use space missions to inspire similar innovation. “In the last two years if you walk into pretty much any shopping mall in China, you’re going to see something space connected,” he says. “An exhibition, or a mock-up of China’s Mars rover or space station. They are really pushing it into people’s consciousness that China is a space nation.”

Tančič has encountered the mixing of serious scientific research with flashier PR exercises and commercial ventures in other countries he has photographed. “In Japan I photographed satellite company ALE,” he says. “They call themselves the first space entertainment company because they allow you to arrange a meteor shower to order.” In 2025 ALE plans to use micro-sized ‘cube’ satellites to release particles into the mesosphere, a largely unexplored area about 50 miles above our planet, where they will burn up and provide a light show down on Earth.

While entertainment pays the bills, the company also aims to collect atmospheric data from the region, which developers hope will provide vital insights for climate change research. “The meteor shower gets them headlines, raises their profile and helps them to fund the placement of other instruments with more scientific value into their satellites,” says Tančič. “You can’t imagine Nasa doing that [in the 1960s].”

Leszek Orzechowski, CEO of the Lunares Research Station, a simulated moon and Mars base in Pila, Poland


Tančič believes that just as the first space race resulted in technology including CAT scans and camera phones, the new push into space will have benefits for those of us left on Earth. “Throughout the project, I’ve always prioritised companies whose work in space can improve life down here,” he says.

One of those companies is Interstellar Lab in Paris, which makes bio pods to grow food in extreme climates. The aim is to eventually create a closed loop system. “Everything will be reused and recycled,” explains Tančič. “No extra air or water, just what you have inside the pod.” Such a system would allow food to be grown on Mars, though to fund its development, the company is selling the technology to organisations with no interest in space. “They have clients in the pharmaceutical and perfume industries, as the pods allow them to grow delicate plants in controlled circumstances,” says Tančič. “They are also being used to help plants threatened by climate change.”

Barbara Belvisi, CEO of Interstellar Lab, a Paris-based company creating experimental bioregenerative stations capable of growing food on Mars

Interstellar was just one of several companies Tančič shot that are bridging the gap between Earth and space. In Slovenia, the photographer’s home country, he found Duol. “They initially made protective bubbles that cover tennis courts in the winter so people could continue to play,” he says. “Then they received funding from Nasa to create huge structures that could work on Mars, and now they can put them in the ice of the Arctic or the heat of the desert to provide shelter from the elements.”

Slovenia also has a network of caves that are playing a role in preparing for life away from Earth. “On Mars the underground tunnels left behind by running lava could be one of the most suitable living habitats for humans since they would provide good protection from radiation and sand storms,” explains Tančič. In 2019, six European Space Agency astronauts in training spent six weeks in Slovenia’s Škocjan Caves to prepare for exploration of other worlds.

Astronauts of the future have also spent time in Europe’s answer to China’s C-base, Lunares in the Polish city of Piła. “Crews visit from around the world to conduct experiments,” says Tančič, who visited in 2019. “They are seeing if they can generate electricity from algae, grow food in aquaponics… lots of really experimental stuff.” A return trip to Mars is currently estimated to take 21 months – nine months to get there, with the return trip only possible three months later when the planets align again, reducing the distance to travel. As a result, the base focuses on the psychological effects of what it would mean to spend a long period of time on such a mission. “They have crews, usually of six people, spending weeks here, behaving like they’re in transit or living on Mars,” continues Tančič. “They are trying to make it as close to life on another planet as possible.”

Designer Miha Artnak plants a flag he has created for Mars in the Škocjan Caves, Slovenia. Astronauts have been training in the cave system to prepare for life on Mars

The Americas

In the US, Tančič was interested to discover how blurred the lines between fiction and reality have become. “There’s a visual language we associate with space,” he says. “That mostly comes from comic books or films but is now being used by actual space tech companies.” In Hollywood Tančič visited Global Effects Inc, a company that started off designing spacesuits for costumes in movies, but were so good that Nasa now commissions them. “Actual space suits are so expensive that you don’t want to use them regularly, so Nasa has Global Effects create suits for photo shoots and so on. They still cost tens of thousands of dollars, just not tens of millions.”

Tančič also discovered another company operating between the silver screen and the cosmos. “Norton Sales Inc is kind of a space junkyard,” he says. “It buys and sells decommissioned technology from Nasa. Nothing top secret, but disused nozzles, rocket parts, landing gear. They started off selling to the studios as props, but now they also sell to companies looking to launch their own satellites into space, even car enthusiasts making their own rocket-propelled vehicles. There’s an entire business there.”

Garo Anserlian, a watchmaker in Los Angeles, making a ‘Mars watch’ for a Nasa employee

The junkyard was part of a community that Tančič encountered across the US that included space architects, space dieticians, even space watchmakers. “A Mars day lasts 37 minutes longer than a day on Earth,” explains Tančič. “I met a third-generation watchmaker who worked close to Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL], and he figured out how to slow down the mechanisms, so they ran on what they call ‘sol’ time. Lots of people who work at JPL have these watches and they live according to Mars time on Earth. So when it is sunrise on Mars they can open the solar cells on a rover and drive it around. I love that this one guy on Earth is impacting experiments hundreds of millions of miles away.”

Another interesting character Tančič shot was medic Susan Ip-Jewell. “I met a lot of dreamers, but she was more concerned with the practical,” he says. “Mars crews will be small and you can’t have experts on everything. She was looking at how doctors could provide specialised medical advice from Earth.”

Ip-Jewell runs medical workshops and has been developing VR goggles and communication systems that would allow a surgeon on Earth to tell an astronaut how to perform an operation in space in real time. “This technology could help life on Earth,” says Tančič. “For example, there could be an earthquake in a remote region where there aren’t enough skilled doctors. If you could send people these VR goggles they could be guided through complicated procedures that would not otherwise be possible. When I met Susan she was planning to do workshops in the Himalayas at heights of 5,000 metres where there is less oxygen and it’s a really challenging environment.”

Norton Sales Inc, also known as the ‘space junkyard’, is a shop selling decommissioned rocket parts


In South Africa Tančič discovered part of what he describes as “one of the biggest science projects of all time.” Constructed in 2019, the MeerKAT is a radio satellite system comprising 64 dishes, each 65 feet tall. It is a key part of SKA (Square Kilometre Array), an international project to create the world’s largest radio telescope. “They’re going to be able to see the birth of galaxies,” enthuses Tančič, who believes the fact it is being built in Africa, a continent with little engagement with the first space race, is really important. “I visited a girls’ school in one of the poorest townships in Cape Town, which has a great science department. The girls there were talking about how they could one day work on this satellite radio station. There’s also a new planetarium that gives free talks and has an education programme. These things will make a huge difference, inspiring people to learn more about science and technology.”

It all adds up to what Tančič calls “the democratisation of space”, driven by the connectivity of the internet and relatively inexpensive cube satellite technology. “Space brings people of all walks of life together,” he says. “Kids in Africa today can see that they can be part of the exploration. A girl living in Slovenia sees that she’s not excluded from this. I met lots of female CEOs and scientists who were in a minority in the first space race and who are now shaping the future of space exploration.”

Tančič believes we are not far from putting people on Mars and is excited about the wave of enthusiasm this would bring. “Hopefully people will be inspired to prove what they are capable of. We are going to see coming generations push themselves further than they ever thought possible.”

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme