Image: Rover
NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept depicts the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a nuclear-powered mobile robot for investigating the Red Planet’s past or present ability to sustain microbial life.
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updated 7/16/2012 11:07:42 AM ET 2012-07-16T15:07:42

Despite NASA's tough budget situation, the 1-ton rover streaking toward an Aug. 5 landing on Mars is unlikely to be the space agency's last big, ambitious Red Planet mission.

Funding cuts have forced NASA to shelve plans for future multibillion-dollar "flagship" planetary missions beyond the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover, which will investigate Mars' potential to host past or present microbial life after it touches down three weeks from now. For the time being, the space agency is looking for ways to explore the Red Planet on the cheap.

But over the long haul, NASA still has its sights set on a particularly alluring flagship — a sample-return effort that would bring pieces of Mars back to Earth for study.

"The scientific goal — and for human exploration as well — of a Mars sample-return is still the highest priority in the long term," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, said in April. [ 7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars ]

Tough budget times
President Barack Obama's federal budget request for 2013, which was unveiled in February, keeps NASA's overall budget flat, at $17.7 billion.

But the request cuts NASA's planetary science funding from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion, with further reductions expected in coming years. The space agency's Mars program gets hit particularly hard, with funding dropping from $587 million this year to $360 million in 2013, then falling to just $189 million in 2015.

As a result, NASA is scaling back and reformulating its Red Planet exploration strategy. The space agency has put together a committee called the Mars Program Planning Group, which is assessing possible future missions to Mars.

NASA also withdrew from the European-led ExoMars mission, which aims to launch an orbiter and a rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

ExoMars is viewed as a key step toward sample-return, which the U.S. National Research Council identified last year as the highest-priority planetary science mission for the next decade.

Many researchers believe that sending pieces of the Red Planet back to Earth is the best way to search for signs of Martian life. But sample-return would almost certainly be a multibillion-dollar flagship effort, putting it out of NASA's reach in today's budget environment.

"There is no room in the current budget proposal from the president for new flagship missions anywhere," Grunsfeld said shortly after the budget was released. [ NASA's 2013 Budget: What Will It Buy?]

Still aiming for sample-return

NASA has one more Mars exploration effort firmly on the docket beyond Curiosity, a $485 million orbiter called Maven (short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN), which is due to launch in late 2013 to study Mars' upper atmosphere.

The space agency also plans to launch another mission in either 2018 or 2020, to take advantage of a favorable Mars-Earth alignment and to keep the Red Planet program moving forward. This effort, which will likely cost less than $800 million, remains largely undefined, with rovers and orbiters still under consideration, officials have said.

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.

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," McCuistion said. "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," Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in April.

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.

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"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.

Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwallor SPACE.com@Spacedotcom. We're also onFacebookand Google+.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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