Will Curiosity be NASA's last Mars rover? (+video)
Budget cuts have forced NASA to drastically scale back its planetary science missions. But the space agency still has hopes for a future mission that will collect samples of Martian soil and bring them to Earth.
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But in the long run, NASA remains committed to sample-return, and it continues to hold out hope that an improved fiscal situation will make it possible someday.Skip to next paragraph
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Mars exploration is, after all, a stated priority of the Obama Administration. In 2010, the president directed NASA to work toward getting astronauts to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s. And before sending humans to the Red Planet, we should really determine if the world harbors life of its own, NASA officials have said.
"If Mars already has life, you have to understand the effects on humans," Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in April. "So this is a critical question — not just the innate human question of 'Are we alone?' but also safety of humans on the surface of the planet."
Mars is too compelling to ignore
While the outlook for big-ticket NASA Mars missions such as sample-return may be bleak right now, the agency should get its shot someday, experts say. The Red Planet is simply too inviting to resist over the long haul.
"Mars is such a compelling scientific target," said Scott Hubbard of Stanford University, the former "Mars Czar" who restructured NASA's Red Planet program after it suffered several high-profile failures in the late 1990s.
"You can get to it every 26 months, and it's the place in the solar system most likely to have had life emerge," Hubbard told SPACE.com. "If you add that to Mars being also the most logical ultimate target for human exploration, I think that Mars will continue to be part of the space exploration portfolio."
But Hubbard — who just published a book about his Mars Czar days ("Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery") — added that it's in the United States' best interest to give NASA the means to tackle ambitious Mars missions sooner rather than later. The nation risks losing its space and technological supremacy if it allows other countries to achieve feats like sample-return first, he said.
Curiosity could help NASA carve out a bolder future at Mars, Hubbard said. If the huge rover performs as advertised, it could generate excitement among the American public and, perhaps, the politicians who hold NASA's purse strings.
"I've seen the pendulum swing back and forth, and I hope that the successful mission will push it back in the direction of Mars exploration," Hubbard said.
- How Mars Rover Curiosity's Nail-Biting Landing Works (Pictures)
- Occupy Mars: History of Robotic Red Planet Missions (Infographic)
- The Best (And Worst) Mars Landings in History
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