Major NASA projects over budget

Two-thirds of NASA's major new programs are significantly over budget or behind schedule, according to the agency's latest report to Congress.

NASA's nearly stagnant budget requires the agency to cut projects to make up for unexpected expenses, and cost overruns nearly shut down one of the rovers on Mars — until it got a reprieve Tuesday. They also threaten completion of a climate-change satellite called Glory.

Under a 2005 law, the space agency must tell Congress when a major project under development will exceed its budget by more than 15% or fall more than six months behind schedule. Four of the 12 new major projects are over budget, and eight are behind schedule to the point where lawmakers needed to be notified.

NASA's procedures "are not what they need to be," says Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., chairman of the House space subcommittee. "They have to be accountable. These are … very significant amounts of taxpayer dollars."

Some of the problems are not NASA's fault, says Roy Maizel, the top budget official for the agency's science division. He cited one satellite that's behind schedule because of delays at the European Space Agency. Developing spacecraft "is very hard stuff," he says. "There are a lot of technical challenges."

Last week, NASA's planetary science director Jim Green ordered a $12 million cut to the Mars rovers, which roam the Martian surface collecting geological data. The reason: a newly discovered $170 million rise in the development cost of a new project, the Mars Science Laboratory. That was in addition to a $66 million cost overrun in the program that NASA reported to Congress in February.

Green rescinded the cut on Tuesday after he learned it would mean that one of the rovers would have to be turned off. Now NASA will have to look elsewhere to find $12 million in savings.

Hard choices also will have to be made to make up for the skyrocketing cost of the Glory satellite, which is 31% over budget. Under the 2005 law, NASA can't spend any money on the project after the summer of 2009 without congressional approval — a requirement that could be moot if NASA launches Glory as planned in April 2009.

To make up for the extra $274 million that Glory and the other three programs will cost, NASA could reduce pre-flight testing, strip planned scientific sensors from over-budget spacecraft and scale back operations of older space missions, Maizel says.

The overruns "all the more put a crimp in NASA's budget," which is too small for the agency "to do everything it's trying to do," says Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

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