NASA has made many significant contributions to the world’s knowledge of space and the Earth. For the amount of money which the U.S. government allocates it in yearly budgets, NASA has paid back society in inventions alone, such as Memory Foam, anti-corrosion coating, ArterioVision, cochlear implants, scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses, and many others. Yet, in 2011 alone, NASA spent $43 million in taxpayers’ money to maintain more than 33 underutilized infrastructure facilities, according to an audit by the office of the inspector general. Is Congress more at fault for this waste of taxpayer money, or is NASA?
The structures include launch infrastructures, thermal vacuum chambers, and wind tunnels. NASA is either underutilizing these structures, or is not using them at all, but they continue to be a drain on the pocketbooks of American taxpayers.
Perhaps one of the most famous and expensive of these examples to maintain is one that NASA began constructing several years ago, when they had plans for making a return trip to the moon.
Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was meant to be the facility which would store needed testing equipment for rockets. NASA got funding to build a rocket test stand there, one that would cost $350 million to construct, as a part of the Constellation Program.
In 2010, President Obama canceled the program when it was a third of the way to go from completion.
Congress voted for the project to be finished, despite Obama’s cancellation of it. They allocated another $57 million to NASA for this purpose. Though the test stand will be finished this month, there is currently not a use for it. Still, the cost of maintaining it, alone, for taxpayers wil amount to $900,000 annually.
These problems are, generally speaking, less the fault of poor planning by NASA as compared to the fault of Congress and ever-changing presidential administrations.
For example, NASA’s main goals in the area of human space exploration just in the past six years have changed three times, at least. First, the focus and Congressional funding was directed to the space shuttle program; then, that changed to a focus on the Constellation Program. Now, Congress has directed NASA to work on a “Space Launch System” with the goal of a manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
According to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, addressing lawmakers, the frequent shifts in what is considered to be the national space policy “have increased the difficulty of determining which facilities NASA needs.”
Also, there appears to be no clear time limit on how long obsolete structures must be kept and maintained. Over 80 percent of the NASA facilities are over 40 years old, and have worn out their original usage. What’s more, in 2012, the backlog’s cost, alone, of the “deferred maintenance projects” of NASA was estimated to be $2.3 billion.
Even when NASA has attempted to turn an obsolete piece of their intrastructure into a moneymaker, sometimes the intervention of the Congress has slowed down these efforts.
For example, NASA would like to lease the launch pad they used to support the shuttle and Apollo programs at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The cost for NASA to maintain it each year is $1,2 million. Unless someone is found who will use the launch pad, it will be demolished.
The structure is called Launch Pad 39A. Space X was thinking about leasing the launch pad, but then, the competing company Blue Origin submitted a bid and turn it into a multi-user facility.
NASA officials were close to leasing the pad to SpaceX, an aerospace company that was the first to fly cargo to the International Space Station, until another company, Blue Origin, submitted a competing bid to take over pad 39A and operate it as a multi-user facility.
Blue Origin has filed a protest which will likely delay any action on a potential lease to occur until maybe December 12, 2013.
The battle’s been taken to the U.S. Congress, where various lawmakers with various vested interests want the bid to go to SpaceX while others would like to see it go to Blue Origin, so that multiple users could use the launch pad.
GOP Rep. Bill Posey of Florida sums up the situation, saying that billions of dollars have been wasted. That’s because of “the parochial interests of different members trying to micromanage what NASA does.”
The tremendous waste of taxpayer money by NASA to maintain underutilized facilities, or ones no longer used at all, is staggering. Congress and whichever president happens to be in office are really more at fault than NASA, but the national space agency is often the one who gets the blame for this waste of money.
Written by: Douglas Cobb