Is the rover Curiosity the last mission to Mars?

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Courtesy of NASA

Engineers finish installing six new wheels on the Curiosity rover, and rotate all six wheels at once on July 9, 2010, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The day after Thanksgiving, NASA launches its newest Mars rover to explore the Red Planet. Today On Capitol Hill, lawmakers asked whether this mission to Mars may be the last.

The new rover “Curiosity” will cruise around Mars, looking for places that might have supported life. Two more missions, scheduled five and seven years from now, would do much more: Retrieve soil samples from the Red Planet.

Steve Squyres of the National Academies of Science said the best science is always going to get done in laboratories on earth since instruments in earth labs are better than anything researchers could send to Mars on a rover. He told members of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee that gravel from beyond is a gift that keeps on giving.

"The very best science ever done with samples collected from the moon during the Apollo program forty plus years ago is being done today by scientists who had not been born at the time those samples were collected, using instruments that had not been conceived of," Squyres said.

The two Mars missions are supposed to be joint ventures with the European space agency. But the White House has yet to sign on. Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo of Mississippi said that hesitation makes NASA look like an unreliable partner. "Meanwhile, other international space agencies will collaborate and in time," he said, "they may well be able to fly space missions that were once the domain of NASA," Palazzo said.

Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee say they support future Mars missions. But Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach said NASA wasn’t helping its own case. He noted that the price tag for a new space telescope to replace the Hubble jumped from one-and-a-half to nearly $9 billion dollars.

"Cost overrides of this nature are certainly a greater threat to a viable space program than the asteroid belt or anything else that you would face up there that God has presented as an obstacle for us to moving forward into space," Rohrabacher said.

Project managers said they’d underestimated the complexity and true costs of for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science for NASA declined to answer another tough question: What’s the likelihood of finding life on Mars? Green reminded panel members about the nature of science. "If we don’t have the opportunity to look, we’ll never know," Green said.

Squyres warned that canceling missions to Mars or to Jupiter’s moon Europa would harm cutting-edge science and American know how. "The ability that we have to do things like orbiting Europa or landing and roving on Mars, that’s something that we know how to do in this nation. And if we give that capability up, the people who know how to do that, they’re going to go off to other jobs, they’re going to do other things. These are smart people who are in demand and you simply cannot reconstruct that instantly," Squyres said.

A White House spokesman declined to discuss long term budget details, but said that “even in these times of fiscal restraint,” Obama supports robotic missions and “the ultimate goal of a human mission to Mars.”

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