Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Return of the $1,000 Hammer

NASA's budget history threatens its future

WASHINGTON - Most nights it's possible to look skyward with a pair of cheap binoculars and see a $100,000 mistake circling Earth. The glowing object -- an orbiting NASA tool bag -- was lost last month by an astronaut during a routine spacewalk.

The canvas-and-acrylic caddy contained two grease guns, a scraper, a trash bag and some wipes, hardly cutting-edge technology. So why did it cost $100,000? NASA officials had no answer to that question -- beyond the fact that, as spokesman Allard Beutel put it, "spaceflight is expensive."

That expense is now drawing serious scrutiny from the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama. Of 74 questions submitted to the agency by Obama's NASA transition team, more than half asked about basic spending issues, including cost overruns. It's clear that NASA's long-standing inability to manage its money has attracted the team's attention and could affect the agency's future.

For nearly two decades, NASA and its out-of-this-world projects have made a "high-risk" list compiled by government auditors because of cost overruns totaling millions -- sometimes billions -- of dollars. The designation applies to programs that are "impeding effective government and costing the government billions of dollars each year," according to the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency. NASA has been on this list since 1990.

"Our space program is running inefficiently, and without sufficient regard to cost performance," wrote Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator mentioned as a possible replacement for NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, Stern called the cost overruns a "cancer" that has cost the agency's science program about $5 billion during five years.

NASA says part of the problem is the just cutting-edge nature of what it does. "We start these things out, and we admit upfront we don't completely know how to do them. That is what makes them interesting," Griffin said recently.

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More at the Orlando Sentinel

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