Frist Wants Senate Hearings On NASA

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( The chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA believes the loss of the Mars Polar Lander early Wednesday is just cause for his subcommittee to have hearings about the workings of the space agency.

Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) said Wednesday, "Our nation leads the world in space exploration and it's important that we continue to move forward in our efforts at further discovery. However, recent problems such as this week's failings of the Mars Polar Lander as well as difficulties NASA has had with the International Space Station, Shuttle launches and the Chandra X-Ray telescope, among others, have made it clear that we need a total reassessment of NASA's approach to interplanetary exploration"

"I intend to have hearings", Frist said on Capitol Hill, "to evaluate technological and managerial concerns and determine how we can improve NASA's infrastructure to minimize future risks and enhance our research efforts. If we are to avoid continued mission failures, we must learn from the mistakes and ensure that they are not repeated"

Frist chairs the Senate subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.

A spokesman for NASA administrator Daniel Goldin had no comment on Frist's remarks. A spokesman for House Science Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) told Sensenbrenner will decide if his committee will hold NASA hearings after a blue ribbon commission report on the Mars Lander mission is completed.

However, Ed Weiler, NASA's Deputy Director of the agency's Office of Space Sciences, was asked at a news conference in Pasadena, California, on Wednesday how he thought Congress would react to the failure. He pointed to an opinion poll in USA Today that showed that 73 percent of Americans favored America continuing its mission to Mars. He also pointed to an MSNBC opinion poll that showed 53 percent of Americans believing NASA should be spending more money on exploring Mars while only 15 percent said NASA should be spending less.

"I consider this a vote of confidence by the American people. I urge Congress to read these two national polls," Weiler said.

Weiler also said the loss of the Mars Polar Lander spacecraft is a crushing blow to NASA's Mars exploration program and could result in postponing or maybe even canceling the next planned trip to Mars, scheduled for 2001.

"This has been a wake up call and we are going to respond to it. We are not going to sit back and blandly go forward," Weiler said.

The mission's fate was sealed when the craft failed to contact the Mars Global Surveyor satellite that was circling the planet. In addition, two microphobes that were sent to the Martian surface by the lander also failed to communicate with Earth.

Weiler described the loss of the $165 million spacecraft and two microphobes, estimated to cost around $29 million, as "a crushing blow for the Mars program"