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Posted by on Dec 19, 2008 in Politics, Science & Technology | 4 comments

Can U.S. Afford NASA?

As the Obama transition team is addressing budget deficits in the trillions, it is being stonewalled by the space cadets who operate NASA.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has at least 73 programs that blew their budgets by an average of 50% since 1990, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

Of 74 questions submitted to the agency by Obama’s NASA transition team, more than half asked about basic spending issues, including cost overruns.

The first question was how many programs have cost overruns not publicly reported by NASA.

Michael Griffin, the current NASA administrator, resisted cooperating with the Obama team. He said NASA shouldn’t be evaluated by how well it estimated the cost of projects.

“If we are to judge the worth of our work by our ability to estimate, then that is a standard I am not ready to apply or to accept,” Griffin said.

Oh, yeah?

Maybe it is time to evaluate the worth of some of the projects.

For example, what value do rovers probing Mars surface have compared to improving our roads, bridges, sewers and electrical grid systems?

Griffin announced this month that its Mars rover mission would be delayed two years and cost an additional $400 million. That boosted the total cost of the Mars Science Laboratory to about $2.3 billion.

Some projects seem worthwhile, especially to climate-conscious Obama thinkers.

A science satellite named Glory, was conceived more than a decade ago to help scientists better understand how the sun and particles in the atmosphere affect Earth’s climate.

Since 2007, its cost has jumped by nearly one-third, from $169 million to $221 million. It’s still in the planning stages. The original contractor ran out of research money and came no where near development until bailed out by NASA.

NASA says that part of the problem is the cutting-edge nature of what it does.

“We start these things out, and we admit up front we don’t completely know how to do them. That is what makes them interesting,” Griffin said recently.

NASA’s 2009 budget is $17.6 billion to continue exploring the solar system, building the International Space Station, studying Earth from space and conducting aeronautics research.

Its budget represents about 1% of federal government spending.

NASA now has 55 science missions currently in space, about half involving international partnerships, with 15 additional missions scheduled for launch by the end of 2009.

Our space programs have offered new technology and pride for Americans. It is a luxury we can ill afford.

All one needs is a cheap pair of binoculars on a clear night. The glowing object is an orbiting NASA tool bag lost last month by an astronaut during a routine spacewalk.

The bag of tools cost $100,000.

The canvas-and-acrylic caddy contained two grease guns, a scraper, a trash bag and some wipes. Why so expensive?

NASA officials said they had no answer to that question — beyond the fact that, as spokesman Allard Beutel put it, “space flight is expensive.”

“Our space program is running inefficiently, and without sufficient regard to cost performance,” wrote Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator who has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Michael Griffin, the current NASA administrator.

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 over five years.

(Sources: NASA, Orlando Sentinel, New York Times)

cross posted on The Remmers Report <,a>

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