After years of sending relatively inexpensive rovers and probes to Mars, NASA is taking a huge gamble with the $2 billion Curiosity rover, which is set to land early Monday morning, according to one prominent Mars scientist.
Robert Zubrin is president of the Mars Society, an organization dedicated to the human exploration of Mars, and author of The Case for Mars. A successful mission isn't guaranteed, given the fact that only a third of all missions to Mars have been successful.
"NASA is really betting the house on this one," he says. "They have deviated from the previous wisdom of sending multitudes of relatively cheap missions to Mars for one expensive and incredibly powerful mission."
By all accounts, Curiosity is the most ambitious rover ever sent to the Red Planet. It's much heavier and more sophisticated than any previous rover or probe, and, if successful, is expected to determine if microbial life has ever lived on Mars.
With NASA already having axed its manned spaceflight missions and coming under recent scrutiny from those who'd like the government to slash its budget, this could be a make-or-break mission for the agency, he says.
And scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who designed and built the rover, are putting their chips on an all-new, and untested, landing system that ups the ante. If successful, the multi-part landing process, which will use a rocket-powered "sky crane" to lower the thousand pound rover onto the planet's surface, could be powerful enough for future "sample return" missions that could re-launch small Martian soil samples to earth.
"If it succeeds, it'll be a brilliant mission and could conceivably make discoveries that'll incite future human missions," Zubrin says. "If it fails, NASA will be discredited at exactly the wrong time."
Zubrin says he has a gut feeling that NASA has about a 70 percent chance of pulling it off.
"It's an important fact that NASA has been more successful than other agencies," he says. "I don't think it was prudent [to do such an expensive mission], but just because a gamble isn't prudent doesn't mean it can't win. Risky gambles have paid off."
Hindsight, he says, is 20/20, and NASA's harshest critics will come out of the woodwork if the rover crashes.
"If you look at the engineering and physics, the [landing procedure] is entirely defensible," he says. "But if it fails, the voices of criticism will be phenomenal."
The Obama administration has already tabled planned 2016 and 2018 missions to Mars. If Curiosity crashes, those missions are likely to be permanently scrapped. But a successful mission will make the thirst for a manned flight undeniable.
"If it finds [life], there's a very strong argument for humans to Mars," he says. "It'll be hard to hold the hounds back."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org