NASA’s planetary science program, faced with a steep cut in President Barack Obama’s proposed 2013 budget, is counting on a successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and closer ties to the better-funded human space exploration initiative to support a timely rebound, top agency science officials said during the opening session of the 43rd annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) here.

The success of MSL’s scheduled Aug. 6 landing with the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater and a replanning of the agency’s Mars mission agenda to embrace the agency’s human deep-space plans by this fall will be significant factors in the agency’s 2014 budget submission, two top NASA officials told a March 19 gathering.

“Curiosity will be the Hubble Space Telescope of Mars exploration,” predicts John Grunsfeld, associate NASA administrator for the Science Directorate and a former astrophysicist/astronaut who flew three shuttle upgrade missions to the nearly 22-year-old space telescope.

The MSL’s 2,000-lb. Curiosity rover is the centerpiece of a $2.5 billion, two-year mission to assess the habitability of the 96-mi.-wide Southern Hemisphere crater, where liquid water may have once pooled. But reaching the scientifically intriguing target will require a successful first execution of a novel descent strategy that will require the big probe to slow itself and hover low over the landing site, while it lowers Curiosity to the surface on a tether.

“Without question, we must keep our eye on the ball. It’s with top priority that the planetary science division is working hard at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the associated MSL community to make the landing on Mars a success,” says Jim Green, director of the planetary science division, who urges the planetary science community to participate in the widest possible public engagement.

“This is just a seminal event, and we should not let this opportunity go by without relaying it to our stakeholders, and that gets right down to the general public,” Green says. “I believe it will open a new era of discovery that will compel this nation to invest more in planetary science.”

NASA’s overall science spending would decrease to $4.9 billion annually from the current $5 billion under the proposed 2013 budget and remain flat through 2017 under runout projections. The planetary science division, however, falls from the current $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion in 2013, then $1.1 billion in 2015 before rising to $1.2 billion in 2017 under the current plan.

The late-November launch of MSL shifted the flagship project to a lower-cost operational status from the development phase. NASA chose not to proceed with a new start to hold the agency’s top line at $17.7 billion. The strategy created an uproar among planetary scientists and some lawmakers as it was unveiled in February. NASA pulled out of the ExoMars partnership with the European Space Agency for missions in 2016 and 2018 that were intended to lay the groundwork for a future Mars sample return.

Under a replanning initiative organized by Grunsfeld, the agency’s Human Space Exploration and Operations Directorate and the offices of the chief technologist and chief scientist are devising plans for new follow-ons to NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter, which is scheduled for a late-2013 liftoff.

The rescoping effort, which will draw from the president’s 2010 directive that points NASA toward the human exploration of an asteroid by 2025 and missions to the Martian environs in the 2030s, should produce its first report outlining the breadth and goals of the planning by the end of March, Grunsfeld says. A website hosting associated documents and plans for town-hall meetings will follow.

“By late summer, we want them to essentially complete their work so we can incorporate it into our fiscal year 2014 submission to the administration,” he told the LPSC, which is meeting through March 23.