Some hold that if Curiosity snags the ultimate prize, evidence for organic compounds in the rocks it analyzes, "then the science community, which is already energized, will make a very strong case that, given what we've built up, the capability that we've produced, it would be just tragic, foolhardy, to not continue this as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences," says Scott Hubbard, the first head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program and now a consulting professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
The latest decadal survey from the Academy, a blueprint for the next 10 years of planetary exploration, gives a Mars sample return mission – in which rock or soil samples are brought back to Earth for more sophisticated examination – its highest priority among big-ticket missions, with some cost caveats.
But historians note with some irony that success in spaceflight rarely, if ever, begets more money, while disasters tend to rally the troops. President Nixon, arguably facing a less drastic budget picture than President Obama, nevertheless shut down the Apollo program at the height of its success and nearly ended NASA's human spaceflight effort altogether.
What Mars advocates hope to see, he says, is "that the public reaction to this success could result in a slight modification of priorities" that would restore some money to the Mars program.
"I hope they are right," he adds. "We're not talking about a lot of money in the short term."