Rockets, doughnuts could face ax in US budget cuts

This NASA artist's rendition received in 2007 shows the James Webb Space Telescope
This NASA artist's rendition received in 2007 shows the James Webb Space Telescope, a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror. The James Webb Space Telescope, has careened billions of dollars over budget and needs 500 million dollars more to be completed by 2015.

Hundreds of millions of US taxpayer dollars have been wasted on everything from doughnuts to rockets, auditors told Congress Thursday as budget-minded lawmakers prepared to slash science funding.

For example, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each month on a NASA program to return Americans to the moon, even though the US space agency, Congress and President Barack Obama have agreed not to proceed with it.

Old, rundown buildings are draining 300 million dollars a year from NASA in repair costs alone, and at least one space telescope project has run billions over budget, more than four times initial estimates.

The National Science Foundation, a 6.9 billion dollar federal agency that disperses grants to researchers, also came under the microscope as the House of Representatives held hearings on how to get rid of waste and fraud.

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

Other problems include the way the agency spends half of its budget for contracts, or 204 million dollars, 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 more than 169 million dollars 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," said Congressman Frank Wolf, the Republican chair of the subcommittee.

Republicans, who have a majority in the House but not the Senate, have vowed to press for the biggest budget cuts in history.

On Wednesday, they unveiled a plan to cut tens of billions dollars from the budget, as the US national debt runs to 14 trillion dollars with a 1.5 trillion dollar yearly government deficit.

The reductions, including a 379 million dollar cut for NASA and a 139 million dollar cut for NSF, would figure in a House spending bill to fund the 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, an independent auditor who testified about NASA, the space agency's central "conundrum" is due to that temporary budget extension.

Martin explained 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.

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

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

Another major NASA project, the James Webb Space Telescope, has careened billions of dollars over budget and needs 500 million dollars more to be completed by 2015, Martin 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 dollars, but now the total price tag has risen to 6.5 billion dollars, he said.

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

Democratic lawmaker Chaka Fattah echoed other members of the subcommittee when he said the 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."

But when it came to the food treats being offered to scientists, Fattah was less certain.

"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.

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Republicans could scale back US science budgets

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Feb 10, 2011
I agree with Fattah that it's probably ok to let our NASA scientists have donuts, as long as they aren't the $1,800 dollar apiece variety.

Feb 11, 2011
If they want to cut spending they might have a look at the 660 bn$ plus package of the military budget

(which does not include nuclear resaerch, counter terrorism, the department of homeland security, and kind of intel agency, a lot of the nuclear weapons aimed activities of the DoE, ... which taken all together would be another sizeable multi bn$ chunk where some savings would be in order)

if you add all the defense spending together (including debts incurred and interest being paid) you get about 1 to 1,5 trillion(!) $ a year. Which about matches the annual federal deficit.

But nooooo... take away the knowledge base so they can buy more guns.

Feb 11, 2011
If they want to cut spending they might have a look at the 660 bn$ plus package of the military budget

^ this. While they're at it, they should send some of it to our miserable excuse for a school system, too.

Feb 11, 2011
Shameless number obfuscation.

6.9 billion > 230 million > 500,000.

In reality, by these numbers, the NSF spends under 5% of its budget on building maintenance and less than 0.0008% of its budget on refershments. Yet, a quick glance at the article would imply that building maintenance and refreshments represent a substantial portion of the budget.

Feb 11, 2011
There are 2.22 million people in the U.S. military.

If all of them are E-1 (private equivalent,) then their wages alone would be $32 billion per year, at $1200 per month. This does not include food, housing, medical, and dental which are also paid, so basicly double or triple the wages to cover this.

So basicly 10% to 15% of the entire military budget would be wages and cost of living, even if everyone was paid the "entry level" lowest rank pay. Officers, warrant officers, and higher ranking enlisted people make a lot more than the minimum.

If we reduced the size of military further, by the time you count loss of jobs for contractors and their employees, the unemployment in the U.S. would probably go up by about another percent or two, by the time you count all the trickle down effects.

Because wages is such a large portion of overall expense, the military has been working on newer aircraft carriers and other ships with more automated systems to reduce long term costs.

Feb 11, 2011
we must spend more on the military - increases of at least 10% for the next few years would give us the security we need - we have many enemies who dispise for our freedoms - like in Egypt - we must crush this dissent and imprison those who disagree to show them the value of freedom. There are many areas to cut from to do this - education and health continue to drain our wealth. We must lower taxes and build more jails.

Second that. And increase annual aid to Israel by 300% from the current 3bn or so should do it. They need the money to buy the F35s we are going to give them.

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