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NASA's Mars program riding on a rover heading for touch down

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Much rides on the outcome of this mission in an age of looming, deep budget cuts, and not just for the scientists and engineers associated with the mission, notes Scott Hubbard, former head of NASA's Mars Exploration program and the architect of the methodical approach the agency has taken since the late 1990s to exploring the red planet.

"The stakes for NASA and the science community are quite high," says Dr. Hubbard, who also served as head of NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and is now a consulting professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Twice before, he says, the agency's Mars effort suffered major mission failures that led to a restructured Mars program – once after the loss of the Mars Observer orbiter in 1993 and again in 1999 with the losses of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. Each time, he says, the agency analyzed the failures, then bounced back to loft five consecutive successes since 1999.

This time, Curiosity's trip is taking place against a unique backdrop of a proposed budget for Mars exploration that represents a 40 percent cut over its predecessors, he says.

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