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Mars Curiosity has landed, but the battle for JPL's budget is just taking off

NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab Holds Viewing Of Mars Curiosity Rover Landing

Pool/Getty Images

Don't get too excited. Mars Curiosity has been a big success, but there might not be much money for missions in the future.

We successfully landed a one-ton nuclear-powered robot car on a planet over 300 million miles away, using a rocket skycrane. Now Mars Curiosity has, in just a few weeks, beamed panoramic pictures of its new red world back to Earth, zapped a rock with a laser, wiggled its wheels as a precursor to its first spin on the Martian surface, and then gone for a plutonium-powered drive.

Everything is going great!

Except that back home, it isn't. They were high-fiving in their powder-blue polo shirts at Jet Propulsion Lab mission control in Pasadena, when Curiosity signaled that it had not become a $2.5-billion flame out or a smoldering hole in Gale Crater. But the future of "planetary science," with a focus on Mars, is in doubt, as science takes a back seat in NASA's budget.

Will public opinion infuence NASA's budget?

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Who will rule the business of space? Humans...or robots?

SpaceX-Falcon 9

SpaceX

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasts off, with a capsule en route to the International Space Station.

SpaceX-Dragon

The SpaceX Dragon capsule, with solar panels deployed. After a successful servicing mission to the ISS, it returned to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific.

SpaceX-Astros

SpaceX

If SpaceX gets its way, we'll see more guys like this flying into space on its rockets.

VG-Spacecraft

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic is building spacecraft entirely with private funding, to do space tourism and also provide services for NASA.

Curiosity: Robot Geologist and Chemist in One!

NASA/ JPL-Cal Tech

This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

Test Rover Aids Preparations in California for Curiosity Rover on Mars

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars Science Laboratory mission team members ran mobility tests on California sand dunes in early May 2012 in preparation for operating the Curiosity rover.

Space for Sale

NASA

Are we entering a brave new era of commercial space flight? Some entrepreneurs certainly think so.


KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.


Sunday’s landing of the Mars rover Curiosity has generated a lot of excitement about the space program. And with the arrival of commercial space-exploration startups in the big way — see SpaceX and its Space Station servicing mission, Virgin Galactic and its push into space tourism and launch services for NASA — the Curiosity mission has also revived an old debate: Should we focus on sending robots, or people, into space? 

We’ve been asking ourselves that question ever since we started blasting rockets into the void. The physicist Stephen Hawking strongly backs manned flights. He believes that it's imperative to colonize outer space if humanity is to survive (the Earth won't last forever, and you never know if a catastrophic event will occur, such as an asteroid strike or runaway climate change).

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