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Q&A On NASA's Failures

In a Congressional hearing Wednesday, NASA officials admitted that the space agency has had management problems recently, but blamed some of them on tight budgets and the loss of experienced managers.

The hearing of the Senate Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee came shortly after NASA's release of two internal reports critical of how the agency managed recent Mars and Shuttle missions.

These include the loss of the Mars Polar Lander, a $165 million craft that disappeared descending to the red planet's surface late last year, as well as the Mars Climate Orbiter that crashed on approach, lengthy delays in recent shuttle flights, holdups in deploying the international space station and problems with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Who Lost The Lander?
CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood reports:

A landing gear deployment glitch may have led to the premature shut down of the Mars Polar Lander's descent engines last December.

An independent review board is scheduled to release the findings of an exhaustive investigation next week.

United Press International, quoting an anonymous source, reported the braking rockets failed their acceptance testing and "rather than begin an expensive and time-consuming redesign, an unnamed space official simply altered the conditions of the testing until the engine passed."

Read the full report here.

One portion of the hearing focused on a recent United Press International story that claimed that NASA knew about problems with the Polar Lander before it crashed but failed to reveal that to the public.

NASA claims there is "no evidence relating to thruster acceptance testing irregularities as alleged by UPI.

At the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz, said that if the UPI account were true, "then trust that is vital between citizens and government has been violated and warrants very serious examination."

NASA Administrator David Goldin replied, "There were a number of things that were very, very irregular in that press report, and we have made our concerns known to UPI and we believe we are doing all the right things." Goldin says NASA revealed the problem with the Polar Lander's thrusters before the launch, in November 1999, and told the contractor wh built the device to fix it.

"We had time to do testing of that propulsion system before the scheduled landing of the Mars Polar Lander," Goldin said.

A report released in early March concluded NASA's space exploration program is trying to do too much with too little money and not understanding the risks that could lead to embarrassments like last year's failed Mars missions

Authors of that report, and a separate study of problems with the Space Shuttle program, told the committee the agency needed to "slow down and do more careful planning."

They also pointed to a talent drain, due to retirements and downsizing, but concluded that successful missions could still be planned under the agency's "faster, better, cheaper" framework.

The key, the panel argued, was making sure management structures were sufficient to avoid mistakes, catch mistakes, and stop a launch if there is a significant chance of failure.