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updated 8/4/2012 7:12:05 PM ET 2012-08-04T23:12:05

If NASA's newest Mars rover doesn't touch down safely Sunday night, the future of Red Planet exploration could be thrown into serious doubt.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover 's main goal is to determine if Mars can, or ever could, support microbial life. But the huge robot is also carrying the hopes and dreams of NASA's venerable Mars program on its back to some extent, so a crash Sunday night could be devastating.

"It could take the entire Mars program down with it," Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, which pushes for human settlement of the Red Planet, told SPACE.com's Leonard David. "It is victory or death."

Big funding cuts
President Barack Obama's 2013 federal budget request, which was released in February, slashes NASA's planetary science program funding from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion, with further cuts expected in the coming years.

Video: NASA rover speeds toward Mars

Much of the money will come out of NASA's robotic Mars exploration program, which has enjoyed a string of successes in the past decade. After landing in January 2004, for example, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity discovered plenty of evidence that Mars was once warmer and wetter than it is today. And the Phoenix lander found subsurface water ice near the planet's north pole in 2008.

Nevertheless, the White House budget proposal cuts NASA's Mars funding from $587 million this year to $360 million in 2013, and then to just $189 million in 2015.

[ NASA's 2013 Budget: What Will It Buy?]

As a result, NASA was forced to drop of out the European-led ExoMars mission, which aims to deliver an orbiter and a rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, respectively. And the agency is fundamentally restructuring and downscaling its Mars program, in an attempt to figure out how to make the most out of every precious dollar.

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But NASA planetary science officials still hold out hope for a funding comeback, with the help of Curiosity. They think the rover's discoveries could loosen politicians' pursestrings and reinvigorate the agency's robotic exploration efforts.

"What a tremendous opportunity it is for us," Jim Green, head of NASA's planetary science division, said at a conference in March. "I believe [Curiosity] will open up that new era of discovery that will compel this nation to invest more in planetary science."

Sticking the landing
So a successful landing on Sunday night is of paramount importance to the space agency, officials have said.

Curiosity's touchdown "could arguably be the most important event — most significant event — in the history of planetary exploration," Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said last month.

But success is not a given. Landing a robot on another planet is never an easy task, and Curiosity's touchdown will perhaps involve more hand-wringing than usual.

Because it's so heavy, engineers had to devise an entirely new landing method for the rover. A rocket-powered sky crane will lower Curiosity to the Martian surface on cables, then fly off to intentionally crash-land a short distance away. Such a maneuver has never before been tried on another world.

If success over the course of the mission could bring great dividends to NASA's Mars program, then failure Sunday night could have a chilling effect.

[How Curiosity's Nail-Biting Landing Works (Pictures)]

"I think if we are fatal on landing, that will have a very negative influence," said Caltech's John Grotzinger, lead scientist for Curiosity's $2.5 billion mission, which is officially called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

"It's going to force people to look back and ask if it's possible to achieve these very complex, more demanding missions from a technological perspective," Grotzinger told SPACE.com. "How can you talk about sample-return if you can't do MSL first?"

Keeping the program vital
NASA has one more Mars mission firmly on the books beyond MSL, an atmosphere-studying orbiter called Maven that's due to launch next year. The agency plans to launch another mission in 2018 or 2020, partly to keep the program vital.

But a Curiosity crash could persuade some talented scientists and engineers that there's not much of a future at Mars, at least not for a while, researchers say.

"If this thing were to fail, I think a lot of people would trickle away and do other things," said Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. Edgett is principal investigator for Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager instrument, or MAHLI.

He added that a crash might spark discussions within NASA about shifting resources from Mars to other promising destinations, such as Jupiter's moon Europa, which harbors a liquid-water ocean beneath its icy shell.

"I don't like that either-or scenario, but I think that's where we're headed," Edgett told SPACE.com in April.

Mars keeps calling us
Edgett stressed, however, that he didn't think a landing mishap would be the end of the Mars program. Other experts echo that viewpoint, saying that Mars will continue to hold our interest and draw our scientific explorers back.

"It's one of the most scientifically compelling objects in the solar system — perhaps in terms of ease to get to, the most compelling," said Scott Hubbard of Stanford University. "And it's the place, ultimately, for human exploration. So I think Mars exploration will continue."

Hubbard speaks from experience. He's the former "Mars Czar" who restructured NASA's Red Planet program after the agency's Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter both failed in 1999.

Still, success would definitely be preferable for those who care about Red Planet exploration. A strong showing by Curiosity could lead to bigger things down the road at Mars, Hubbard said.

"There's a window, I feel, with a successful mission — particularly if it finds evidence of organics — to give the scientific community even more stimulus and ammunition to ask for a re-look at the budget," Hubbard said.

SPACE.com columnist Leonard David contributed to this story. Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage of NASA's Mars rover landingSunday. Follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwallor SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebookand 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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