- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The silver lining in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s boost in NASA’s budget is the cut in funding for the international space station, an ongoing project that proves there are indeed black holes in space — fiscal black holes. Otherwise, the committee’s unanimously approved $16.4 billion 2005 budget — $1 billion more than this year, and $200 million beyond what President Bush proposed — continues the habit of neglecting NASA’s endemic financial and accounting problems.

Although this page has consistently applauded NASA’s mission — especially after Mr. Bush’s endorsement of a manned Mars mission — and argued for its continued viability, there have always been caveats. Most importantly, NASA must show that it has addressed and corrected its financial structure, which several Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports as well as both internal and external observers have condemned as woefully deficient. But despite the GAO’s recommendations, reiterated over a number of years, NASA has yet to show improvement. An all-too-common example of this occurred over the summer when NASA doubled its projected cost of shuttle missions scheduled for next spring to $1.2 billion.

In testimony before the House Government Reform Committee’s subcommittee on efficiency in May, two GAO directors pinpointed the source for this failure to act: “[M]any of NASA’s financial management problems are deeply rooted in an agency culture that has not fully acknowledged the nature and extent of its financial management difficulties and does not view finance as intrinsic to the agency’s program management decision process.” Four months later, and matters appear to be the same. As one of the directors, Gregory D. Kutz, recently told us, “[NASA’s problems] are better known and NASA is in a better position to implement changes.” But, he added, “the same fundamental problems still exist.” Another analyst not affiliated with GAO was more blunt: “It’s a mess.”

One of the first changes NASA implemented back in April 2000 was the Integrated Financial Management Program, an effort by the agency to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. One former NASA official told us that “the agency’s efforts to implement the so-called IFMP under [NASA Administrator Sean] O’Keefe continues to be riddled with deficiencies and is far from close to being ready for prime time.” The GAO directors’ testimony agreed with this sentiment.

NASA’s inability to get its financial house in order clouds nearly every major program on the agency’s horizon, from the shuttles’ return to flight to the president’s Mars vision. Like any federal agency, we understand NASA is handicapped by a swollen bureaucracy. But we had hoped that by now some progress would have been made. So far, it appears that NASA hasn’t even left the launch pad.

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