NASA, We Have a Problem

Can Gwendolyn Brown fix the space agency's chronic financial woes?

…NASA’s ability to collect, maintain, and report the full cost of its projects and programs is weakened by diverse and often incompatible center-level accounting systems and uneven and nonstandard cost-reporting capabilities….

…NASA does not track the actual costs of completed space station components, even though it often estimates costs at the component level for planning and budgeting purposes…. NASA is also not yet able to uniformly ensure that contractors provide cost data at a level that will give managers the information they need to assess the validity of previous cost estimates, fully monitor the work being performed, and appropriately identify cost drivers….

Overall, our reviews as well as NASA’s show that finance is not viewed as intrinsic to NASA’s program management decision process, nor does it focus on what “could” and “should” take place from an analytical cost-planning standpoint.

Source: “Major Management Challenges and Program Risks; National Aeronautic and Space Administration,” GAO, January 2003

Mars Retreats?

Dramatic as the unveiling of President Bush’s moon-Mars vision was, almost as surprising was how quickly the vision faded. In his State of the Union address just days after the announcement, Bush didn’t mention space. Skeptics charged that the mission was dreamed up to boost the President’s reelection campaign, especially since most of the enormous funds needed for the program would be appropriated after a Bush second term ended.

But if the moon-Mars mission has dimmed in the public eye, NASA is putting it front and center, reshuffling its priorities and redirecting its spending. Initial outlays on the mission are modest. From 2005 to 2009, NASA’s budget for the mission is $12.6 billion, but only $1 billion of that is new funds; the rest will be diverted from other activities. (Those activities included the servicing of the Hubble space telescope, but the resulting outcry has prompted NASA to consider other options.)

How much would the moon-Mars mission ultimately cost? Nobody really knows, and NASA hasn’t provided an official estimate. But when George Bush père proposed a manned earth-to-Mars mission in 1989, the total program cost was estimated at $400 billion. One thing is known: NASA’s costs typically soar far beyond budget. When first proposed in 1984, the International Space Station was supposed to cost $8 billion, but so far Congress has appropriated $32 billion for it.

NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe said public interest in Mars exploration is reflected in the large number of hits registered by the agency’s Website in recent months. But a CBS/New York Times poll taken in January reported that only 48 percent of Americans favored a manned mission to Mars, the first time in the poll’s history that the question had received less than 50 percent approval. Meanwhile, a mere 17 percent thought the United States should be spending more on space programs.


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