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Rover Curiosity is a star, but can it help fund future of Mars exploration?

The steady stream of enticing photographs from the rover Curiosity may be wowing scientists and the public, but NASA is facing serious budgetary constraints on the future of Mars exploration.

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The change forced the agency to withdraw from a joint program of high-profile Mars missions for 2016 and 2018 undertaken with the European Space Agency.

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Some hold that if Curiosity snags the ultimate prize, evidence for organic compounds in the rocks it analyzes, "then the science community, which is already energized, will make a very strong case that, given what we've built up, the capability that we've produced, it would be just tragic, foolhardy, to not continue this as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences," says Scott Hubbard, the first head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program and now a consulting professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

The latest decadal survey from the Academy, a blueprint for the next 10 years of planetary exploration, gives a Mars sample return mission – in which rock or soil samples are brought back to Earth for more sophisticated examination – its highest priority among big-ticket missions, with some cost caveats.

But historians note with some irony that success in spaceflight rarely, if ever, begets more money, while disasters tend to rally the troops. President Nixon, arguably facing a less drastic budget picture than President Obama, nevertheless shut down the Apollo program at the height of its success and nearly ended NASA's human spaceflight effort altogether.

Success and loosened purse strings "are not closely linked," says John Logsdon, a space-policy specialist and professor emeritus at George Washington University in Washington.

What Mars advocates hope to see, he says, is "that the public reaction to this success could result in a slight modification of priorities" that would restore some money to the Mars program.

"I hope they are right," he adds. "We're not talking about a lot of money in the short term."

Where Curiosity's success might well become a factor is in deliberations affecting budgets beyond fiscal 2013, he says.

For now, however, NASA is making plans based on the FY 2013 request.

In June, the agency held a three-day meeting with Mars researchers to weigh options for a scaled-down Mars Exploration Program. And the agency is putting the final touches on a new blueprint for Mars exploration that foresees a launch as soon as 2018.

IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars

The team at NASA developing the recommendations aims to turn in an outline of its results by the end of the month, says Doug McCuistion, current director of the Mars Exploration Program. A full written report is expected this fall.

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