NASA Called out by Senator for Wasteful Spending

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U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) cited $13.3 million in NASA spending in the latest edition of his annual report that calls out U.S. federal agencies for what he says is wasteful spending.

Coburn’s third so-called ”Wastebook,” released Oct. 16, follows the same pattern as previous versions: It digs into the federal budget to highlight obscure programs the senator deems unworthy.

The money Coburn accused NASA of wasting amounts to about 0.07 percent of the agency’s 2012 budget. The Infinity Science Center, a paid-admission museum that doubles as the visitor center for NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, accounted for most of the alleged wasteful spending. Coburn said building the off-site Infinity Center was unnecessary because Stennis already had a visitor center on premises.

NASA spent about $10 million on the Infinity Center in 2012, the Wastebook said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contributed $1.9 million to the Infinity Center and the Interior Department provided $500,000, according to Coburn’s report. The center opened in April and cost $30 million to build, according to a press release from the Hancock County, Miss., Chamber of Commerce.

NASA spokesman David Weaver referred a request for comment to Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Mack, without specifically addressing the NASA programs mentioned in the report, said in an Oct. 19 email that “we share Senator Coburn’s commitment to cutting out waste and will continue to fight to prevent such spending wherever we find it.”

Other NASA programs highlighted in the Coburn report, and their costs, were:

  • Advanced Food Technology, $947,000. In this project, paid volunteers will live in a simulated martian surface environment on Hawaii’s largest island and eat foods intended for astronaut consumption on future missions to the red planet. Work is slated to begin in 2013.
  • Video game development, $1.6 million. Included in this category are a multiplayer online game dubbed “Starlite’ and a TV console game called “Mars Rover Lander,” in which players re-enact the landing of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory.
  • Lessons Learned Information System, $771,000. This publicly accessible online database has been a repository for engineering and programmatic “lessons learned” since 1994. In a report issued March 6, the NASA Inspector General’s office said this database was underused and questioned whether the money spent to maintain it was well spent.

Coburn also dinged the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, for spending $300,000 in 2012 on the 100 Year Starship Project. The initiative is intended to create, in the words of former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, who led a symposium on the subject, “a viable and sustainable non-governmental organization for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible.”

Coburn’s report includes more than 1,000 end notes, many of which cite media reports or briefings to congressional staffers.