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WASHINGTON - NASA will continue its plans to explore Mars despite uncertainty about where the country's space program is headed following retirement of the space shuttles last year, space experts said Thursday.

Recent Mars missions have been successful and future missions are on track, said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters.

"We now know enough about Mars to know where to go," he said in discussing planetary exploration over the past 50 years and the next 50 years.

Green made his comments at a two-day NASA-sponsored event at Lockheed Martin's Global Visions Center in Arlington, Va., marking the 50th anniversary of planetary exploration.

A major goal of NASA's Mars program is to bring pieces of the planet back to Earth for analysis, Green said.

"The next big step is sample return," he said.

Some experts said NASA may have trouble financing larger missions.
"We can't do any flagship activities with the budgets we have currently," Richard Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said.

Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida, said the focus on cutting federal spending will take money from space science programs.

Green said NASA needs to build public support for more funding by communicating its successes and goals in understandable language.
"One thing that's hard to explain to people is how expensive our systems are," he said.

Andre Bormanis, a writer and television producer working on a new production of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," said the space program has been hampered by uncertainty in the past.

"There is stability in the program," he said. "The issue for the community is whether it's going to get the big flashy missions."
Exploring Mars will help scientists better understand climate change, the origins of life, and geological evolution on Earth, Zurek said.
"Is there water in the atmosphere or not?" he said. "That's the kind of stage we're at."

By KATELYNN RUSNOCK, Gannett Washington Bureau

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