WHAT'S NEW by Robert L. Park   Friday, 13 Sep 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.