WASHINGTON — NASA is wasting $215 million on a canceled rocket program, and that could more than double this year unless Congress acts, the agency's inspector general warned lawmakers Thursday.
NASA will have spent that much by the end of February on aspects of the Constellation program that President Obama and Congress agreed to cancel.
But Obama has signed only one NASA bill into law for fiscal 2011, and that bill sets general policy guidelines without appropriating any money. As a result, NASA continues to spend money on projects that are set to be canceled or scaled back.
That will continue until a stop-gap spending bill for government agencies expires on March 4. But if that stopgap measure is extended for the rest of the fiscal year, through Sept. 30, the wasted spending will reach $575 million, according to Inspector General Paul Martin.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, tried unsuccessfully to fix the problem before Congress adjourned in December. He said Thursday he'll introduce legislation.
"Given that every dime counts in our space program right now, we can't afford to be wasting money," he said.
Reports of the wasted spending come as NASA struggles to fund three more shuttle flights -- instead of two, as originally planned -- before the program ends.
The agency also is boosting funding for an effort to work with private companies to develop rockets to ferry people to the International Space Station, while continuing to develop its own heavy-lift rocket for deep-space missions.
Constellation was proposed by President George W. Bush to send astronauts back to the moon. NASA will try to salvage parts of the program's Ares rocket and Orion capsule to create a rocket that could reach asteroids and Mars.
Congress received Martin's letter a day after NASA released a report that raises doubts it can build a heavy-lift rocket by 2016 for $11.5 billion, as lawmakers ordered.
"Rather than moving forward by establishing a program office at Marshall Space Flight Center and using available funds to move forward, NASA throws their hands in the air and claims it is unaffordable without providing a single piece of evidence that brings truth to their conclusions," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "NASA leadership continues to imperil our nation's leadership in human space exploration."
On Thursday, Nelson and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, wrote a three-page letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden disputing the agency's contention that it can't build a heavy-lift rocket at the cost and deadline ordered. They essentially said building on the foundation of Ares and Orion would make the new rocket affordable.
"We specifically rejected the notion of relying on major new developments in launch vehicle design -- the schedule and cost risks associated with such an approach have been the Achilles' heel of too many prior efforts to develop new launch systems at too great a cost," the senators wrote.
As Congress deadlocked over spending legislation at the end of 2010, Nelson led lawmakers in crafting language that would match NASA's spending with the policy changes in the legislation Obama signed. But that language wasn't included in the legislation that will fund the government through March 4.
Martin found that NASA tried to avoid wasting money by developing parts of the Ares rocket and Orion capsule that could still be used. But he said the agency still wasted money in October and November because Congress hasn't passed a spending bill that matches the policy bill. That spending included:
# $147 million on Orion.
# $27 million on ground operations - such as rebuilding launch pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center.
# $11 million to ensure contractors were working in tandem.
# $7 million on mission operations.
Martin's letter quoted one NASA official as saying: "There's a point coming up soon where we would just be spending money to spend money."