February 11, 2011

Auditors: NASA Has Wasted Millions Of Taxpayer Dollars

Auditors told Congress on Thursday that hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been wasted on everything from doughnuts to rockets.

The auditors said, as budget-minded lawmakers prepared to slash science funding, that hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each month on a NASA program to return Americans to the moon, even though the space agency, Congress and President Barack Obama have agreed not to proceed with it.

NASA spends $300 million a year in repair costs for its buildings alone, and at least one complex space telescope project has run billions over budget.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was also brought up during the presentation as the House of Representatives held hearings on how to get rid of waste and fraud.

Inspector General Allison Lerner said NSF is spending $500,000 each year on refreshments at meetings, even though attendees are already compensated for food and other expenses.

Other problems include the way the agency spends half its budget for contracts on pay-in-advance schemes in which contractors get paid ahead of time whether the work is finished or not.

"The risk of fraud, waste and abuse by NSF contractors will continue to be high until NSF implements fully adequate cost surveillance procedures," she told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice and Commerce.

A recent audit of large construction projects undertaken by NSF revealed over $169 million in "unallowable contingency costs," because "no barriers existed to prevent the funds from being drawn down in advance," she said.

"I am beginning to think it is a very sloppy operation out there," Congressman Frank Wolf, the Republican chair of the subcommittee, said during the presentation.

Republicans have vowed to press for the biggest budget cuts in history as they now have a majority in the House but not the Senate.

They unveiled a plan on Wednesday to cut tens of billions of dollars from the budget, as the U.S. national debt runs to $14 trillion with a $1.5 trillion yearly government deficit.

The reductions would figure in a House-spending bill to fund the U.S. government through the end of the fiscal year, in place of a stopgap measure approved last year that expires March 4.

According to Inspector General Paul Martin, NASA's central "conundrum" is due to the temporary budget extension.

Martin said it contains old language that "doesn't allow NASA to terminate the Constellation program," which included the now nixed Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft to replace the retiring space shuttles.

Martin told the subcommittee that lawmakers should take immediate action to correct this "continuing lack of clarity caused by conflicting legislative directives."

Otherwise, he said NASA will keep spending money on rockets to nowhere, for a total of $215 million by the end of February and $575 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Martin said another major NASA project, the James Webb Space Telescope, has spent billions of dollars over budget and needs $500 million more to be completed by 2015.

He said initial estimates put the cost of the telescope, designed to help the hunt for knowledge about early galaxies in the universe, at $1.6 billion.  However, now the total price tag for the project has jumped to $6.5 billion.

"For some projects, it really is rocket science. The engineering required for many of NASA's space and engineering projects in complex and visionary but the agency must do a better job of managing cost and schedule," Martin told the subcommittee.

Democratic lawmaker Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania agreed with the members of the subcommittee when saying Congress supports NASA's mission to advance knowledge of space, but is keen to find ways to trim overblown budgets.

"We need to stop spending money on something we do not want to do," Fattah said. "That is not rocket science."

However, Fattah was less concerned when it came to the food treats being offered to scientists.

"In defense of the coffee and doughnuts, I would say there are probably some areas you can cut but I am not sure we should be inviting the most knowledgeable scientists in the world to talk about a cure for cancer and not offer them coffee," he said during the presentation.


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