Ask different people in the space community to identify wasteful spending at NASA and you’re likely to get a range of answers. Some will argue that NASA is wasting money by supporting three commercial crew competitors when it should downselect to a single company. Others decry the cost increases and schedule delays on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that have hurt other science programs. And, of course, the Space Launch System (aka the “monster rocket”) has its share of detractors.
None of those programs, though, made it this week into Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) “Waste Book 2012″, a compendium of generally obscure government programs that the senator deems a waste of taxpayers’ money. One program that has attracted a considerable share of media attention is a NASA effort: “Out-of-this-world Martian food tasting”. It’s a reference to a $947,000 program to develop and test foods that could be enjoyed by crews on future Mars expeditions. To Coburn, studying that now, at least a couple decades before any such human mission to Mars, is a waste: “You do not need to be a rocket scientist to realize the millions of dollars being spent to taste test Martian meals that may never be served is lost in a black hole.”
That, however, is neither the only nor even the biggest NASA program included in Coburn’s report. The report cited “NASA Entertainment, Inc.”, what it calls the $1.6 million the agency has spent on various interactive projects, including games and the “Third Rock Radio” online radio station. A $771,000 lessons learned database that is “outdated and poorly utilized” (citing a report by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General) also made the report. The biggest NASA program in the report is the $12.4 million spent by federal agencies ($10 million by NASA) to develop a new visitors center for the Stennis Space Center; the report complained it was less cost effective that making upgrades to the original visitors center there.
The report also cited one DARPA space-related project: its funding for the “100-Year Starship” effort, which awarded a $500,000 grant to a group earlier this year as seed funding to continue the effort in the private sector. “Is this project a priority while we have over a $16 trillion debt?” the report asks. (Disclosure: this section in the report relies heavily on an article I wrote for The Space Review last month about the recent 100-Year Starship Symposium in Houston.)
The combined value of the NASA programs cited in Coburn’s report is about $13.3 million, or less than 0.1% of NASA’s overall budget. (The total value of all the programs is about $18 billion, slightly more than NASA’s entire budget but less than 2% of the federal budget deficit for fiscal year 2012.) Coburn argues in the report’s introduction that while this might seem like small change, it can still seem like a big difference to the average person: “How many of our friends, families and neighbors could be fed with the nearly $1 million the government spent taste testing foods to be served on the planet Mars?” One imagines, though, that some people still believe there are bigger sources of waste in their pet programs in the space agency.