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NASA gets poor marks for budgeting — and $1 billion

WASHINGTON — NASA can land a spacecraft on a peanut-shaped asteroid 150 million miles away, but it doesn't come close to hitting the budget target for building its spacecraft, congressional auditors say. NASA's top officials know it and even joke about it.

This week auditors found that on nine projects alone NASA is nearly $1.1 billion over-cost estimates that were set in the last couple of years. Still, the new stimulus package gives NASA $1 billion for climate-watching satellites and exploration, among other things.

Congress' financial watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, reviewed NASA's newest big-money projects and found most were either over budget, late or both.

"Getting an extra infusion of money doesn't necessarily mean you have a capability to spend it well," said Cristina Chaplain, GAO's acquisitions chief who wrote the study.

A second GAO report used NASA as one of its leading poster children for bad practices in estimating costs.

The space agency, which has a budget of about $18 billion, needs "a more disciplined approach" to its projects, the GAO said.

NASA spending has been on GAO's "high risk" list since 1990. Its cost overrun problems will be the subject of a House Science Committee hearing today.

In a statement, NASA said its missions "are one-of-a-kind and complex, which always makes estimating challenging. … We do believe NASA is a good investment of federal funds and strive to provide the best value." It said external forces, such as launch availability, also cause delays and cost increases, and that it has improved its cost estimating.

NASA projects

The Government Accountability Office found cost overruns in at least nine big NASA projects.

ProjectWhat it doesCostCost increaseLaunch delay
Mars Science LaboratoryMars exploration$2.3 billion$657.4 million since October 200725 months, to October 2011
NPOESS Preparatory ProjectSatellite to study atmosphere and sea temperatures$794.6 million$121.8 million since October 200626 months, to June 2010
Kepler EarthPlanet hunter$594.8 million$97.3 million since October 20069 months, to March 2009
GlorySatellite to study global warming$347.9 million$81.8 million since October 20076 months, to June 2009
Fermi Gamma-rayLarge area space telescope$774.5 million$51.2 million since October 2006June 2008, 9 months late
Orbiting Carbon ObservatorySatellite to study global warming$273.1 million$37.9 million since October 2007Equipment failed after Feb. 2009 launch, project destroyed
Solar Dynamics ObservatorySatellite to study the sun$817 million$31.5 million since October 200617 months, to January 2010
AquariusEarth water probe$253.1 million$11.7 million since October 200710 months, to May 2010
DawnAsteroid explorer$465 million$4.6 million since October 2006Launched Sept. 2007, no delay

Source: Government Accountability Office. Cost estimates are as of December 2008

NASA gets poor marks for budgeting — and $1 billion 03/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 10:53pm]
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