UK science risks stagnation unless it joins the push to send astronauts and robots to Mars, experts have claimed.
Scientists meeting this week urged the research councils to unite to persuade the government to meet the anticipated £25 million a year national cost of participating in the European Space Agency's Aurora programme.
Many hope the UK will also drop long-standing opposition to manned space flights in a bid to unlock the red planet's secrets.
David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, acknowledged Aurora's potential. He even hinted: "If, in the evolution of a science-driven programme, it is necessary to have people out there (in space), then by all means let's do it - but let's do it on a science basis."
Aurora will include a robotic Mars rover in 2009, the return of Martian rock to Earth by 2014, a manned trip to the Moon in 2024 and one to Mars in 2033.
Speakers told the London meeting that UK participation would advance science, from geology to software development, from medicine to robotics, as well as boosting the British space industry and inspiring a new generation to pursue careers in science.
Professor King said he hoped science would do well in the next government spending review, possibly securing the necessary funds.
But he noted: "If we don't get that increase, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (Pparc) is going to have to look at priorities within an existing budget, which is not going to be easy."
Ian Halliday, chief executive of Pparc, admitted that other research councils were reluctant to support the programme.
But many scientists fear the UK could languish on the sidelines if the opportunity is not grasped.
Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University, said that the Aurora programme was truly interdisciplinary and merited an increase in the national science budget.
David Parker, space science manager at EADS Astrium, said it would cost 50p per person per year on top of the UK's current civil space science budget of Pounds 3.
"For the price of two first-class stamps we could go to Mars," he said.
Kevin Fong, lecturer in physiology at University College London and space biomedicine researcher, said the UK would benefit from fully backing Aurora, including manned missions.
"Otherwise, this country will become a parochial backwater and our children will continue to regard science as a hard way to make bad money, and nothing more," he warned.