Curiosity Rover Could Spark Mars Space Race

Mars rover reasserts American dominance in space.

Mars
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Experts hope the Curiosity rover's successful landing Monday will reassert American dominance in space and could fuel future missions to Mars.

Everyone from President Obama to Bill Nye to scientists involved with the project lauded Monday's achievement, the most expensive, heaviest, and technically complex rover ever successfully landed on Mars. It may also give NASA, an agency that has recently come under fire for ending the space shuttle program and which has been pointed to as prime for budget cuts, a much-needed boost.

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The agency somewhat controversially pulled out of an agreement to fly two planned missions to Mars—dubbed "ExoMars"—in concert with the European Space Agency in 2016 and 2018. Monday's success and the surrounding excitement could put those back on the table, according to Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society.

"Certainly now's the time to plan more missions—what we've seen here is a demonstration of technical excellence," he says. "To abort the Mars program now would be sheer insanity. We have such a magnificent program and to say we're done now, it's crazy. I think that should be apparent right now."

In its proposed budget, the Obama administration would slash Mars program funding by more than $200 million in 2013, from $587 million to $360.8 million, before ultimately slashing it to $188.7 million in 2015, while keeping NASA's funding essentially constant. Still, the president is basking in NASA's success.

"The successful landing of Curiosity … marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future," Obama said in a statement shortly after the 1:32 a.m. EDT landing.

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After Curiosity, the next goal, scientists say, is returning a sample of Martian soil to Earth, something that may be attempted with the ExoMars missions. The technology displayed during the Curiosity landing—a "sky crane" gently lowered the 1,000-pound rover safely onto Mars—could be used to fly and return a capsule that could hold about a kilogram of soil, according to Zubrin.

He says it's time to ramp up Mars exploration, not tone it down, especially while America still has a head start. Of the 40 missions humans have sent to Mars, just 16 have succeeded—14 of them American.

"We're batting .700 in a game where the rest of the world is batting .060. Why should we cut off one of the areas we are still showing superlative excellence?" Zubrin says. "Every person on the moon has been American, every Mars rover has been American, every probe going to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune has been American. [Cancelling Mars missions] is not merely accepting national decline, it's causing national decline. It's throwing away a national treasure."

Zubrin isn't the only one who shares this view. Earlier this year, Texas Republican Rep. Ralph Hall expressed concerns to NASA administrator Charles Bolden about the Mars budget.

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"I am puzzled that NASA would choose to cut one of its most productive and successful science programs in this era of tough choices," he said. "The decision likewise flies in the face of the latest planetary decadal survey which named Mars sample return as its top priority."

Curiosity's success has some dreaming bigger than a sample return—Artemis Westenberg, president of Explore Mars, says it's time for NASA to set its sights on flying a human to the planet.

"We believe in staying curious. Do you go to the moon to plant a flag and take pictures or do you want to go to a place to have a presence there? Curiosity will bring us answers, but we'll also get more questions," she says. "This is a prelude to more. Rovers and robots can only do so much. In the end, we will have to send humans."

She says Curiosity's discoveries could start an all-new space race, but instead of facing just the Russians, other countries will be in the running, too. With its newfound interest in Mars, the European Space Agency could also be a strong contender.