Friday, 13 September 96 Washington, DC
1. LIFE ON MARS? A HOUSE HEARING HEARS WHAT IT WANTS TO HEAR.
Most congressional hearings are theater, but this week's Space
Science Subcommittee hearing on the search for past or present life
on the red planet lacked even a token dissenter to provide dramatic
interest. Scientists who had bubbled with enthusiasm in announcing
the possible discovery of fossil life on a Martian meteorite (WN 9 Aug 96) were on hand to bubble again,
but this time there was no skeptic around to question the evidence.
No matter, the possibility that life exists or has existed on Mars is
of compelling scientific interest, whether the meteoritic evidence
holds up or not. However, the scientists were joined by Thomas
Stafford, the former astronaut who commanded Apollo X. Stafford
chaired a 1990 panel developing a plan to send humans back to the
moon and thence on to Mars. The plan was dropped when someone
calculated the cost. Because the risk of spoiling the search for
life by contaminating Mars with Earth organisms is so great, it is
now even less likely that humans will be sent to Mars. Besides, it's
not clear what humans could do after nine months of weightlessness.
The real danger is that, to satisfy the Star Trek lobby, huge sums
will be squandered on preparations for a mission that will never take
place. We can always design better robots, but humans haven't
changed in 30,000 years.
2. MISSILE THREAT? GAO REPORT CASTS DOUBT ON "SECRET" ESTIMATE.
Back in May, in the midst of congressional debate on the Defend
America Act, the Washington Times leaked a CIA estimate that the U.S.
faces no ballistic missile threat for the next 15 years (WN 17 May 96). Proponents of a National
Missile Defense cited the CIA estimate as proof that intelligence
agencies are politicized. Today, a GAO study was released that
concludes that the National Intelligence Estimate failed to
adequately back up its 15-year figure. The only estimate GAO found
that disagreed with the NIE was by the conservative Heritage
Foundation. The GAO report will no doubt be cited as proof that the
GAO has been politicized.
3. CONTINUING RESOLUTION? CONGRESS PLANS TO LEAVE ON 27
Any appropriations bill that hasn't been signed into law by then will
be covered by a continuing resolution that will keep the government
running. Already, the House is on a three-day work week as members
insist they need to stave off political threats at home. The Senate
has given up on passing anything except appropriations. Talk had
been of a CR through 31 March (WN 12 Jul
96), but by then the President will have line-item veto authority
(WN 29 Mar 96), so a full-year CR looks
4. ACADEMIC PORK? EARMARKS FOR UNIVERSITIES ARE SLASHED BY 50%,
according to an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's
a lot easier for appropriators to tag money for pet projects when
budgets are going up than when they're coming down.