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Mars exploration to go on even if mission fails, space officials say

August 5, 2012 |  4:35 pm

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Two top space officials pledged Sunday afternoon to continue the exploration of Mars in years to come – regardless of whether NASA’s Curiosity rover survives its dramatic landing later tonight.

“We are committed to a Mars exploration program,” NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld said.

Grunsfeld appeared at a news briefing with Charles Elachi, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, which is managing the $2.5-billion Curiosity mission.

Elachi said that in the final hours of Curiosity’s flight, he turned to the words of Teddy Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

“This is a message to the whole world: We are to dare mighty things, even if we might fail,” Elachi said. “Every explorer has had tough days. It was never easy.”

PHOTOS: Preparing for Martian landing

The officials conceded that much is riding on the success of the Curiosity mission tonight. Elachi called Curiosity “a very important element of the overall [space] program.”

NASA’s budget, like that of many federal government agencies, faces considerable uncertainty in the coming years. There have been suggestions that NASA could be forced to take entire Mars missions off the table, or at least postpone their launch. Grunsfeld insisted that NASA had not been forced to make such drastic moves – not yet, anyway.

And in the meantime, he said, “Curiosity has captured the imagination of the world” – like Apollo 11, the flight that sent the first humans to the surface of the moon, captivated him as a teenager.

“We’re about to do something that I think is just huge for humankind,” he said.

Also Sunday, with Curiosity on a near-perfect course for its scheduled 10:31 p.m. PDT landing, scientists said they had passed up a final opportunity to correct the spacecraft’s trajectory.

Curiosity was “very healthy,” said mission manager Brian Portock.

“In cellphone speak, we have a full set of bars,” Portock said. “The flight team is feeling really good about the spacecraft.”

The craft was winging its way toward Mars at more than 8,000 mph.

“Tonight’s it – the Super Bowl of planetary exploration,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “We score and we win – or we don’t score and we don’t win.”

“If we succeed it will be one of the greatest feats in planetary exploration – ever,” McCuistion said. “The science at Mars is crucial to key questions in science: Are we alone?”

Curiosity is the size of a small car, and is the largest and most advanced machine scientists have ever attempted to send to another planet. The robot is a roving geochemistry laboratory, equipped with a suite of powerful instruments and capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting Martian soil.

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration

If it succeeds, the mission is expected to revolutionize scientists’ understanding of Mars by scouring an ancient meteor crater and a mountain for the building blocks of life in an effort to determine whether the planet is or was habitable.

The craft is also expected to pave the way for important next steps in deep-space exploration, including sample return and potential human exploration. President Obama has established a goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. One day, Grunsfeld said Sunday afternoon, humans could even live on Mars.

MORE ON THE MISSION TO MARS: 

Here's the man responsible for messing up the Mars mission

--Scott Gold

Photo: NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times

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