NASA by the Numbers: Cost Overruns Plague Key Projects

NASA's next administrator will have his hands full — with federal funds and a set of formidable challenges, including how to return to the moon by 2020 without seeing the agency's budget go into orbit itself.

Despite cost overruns totaling nearly $1.1 billion in nine of its flagship projects, NASA will see its 2010 fiscal year budget increase to $18.7 billion. Combined with the $1 billion NASA got from the new stimulus package, that’s $2.4 billion more than the space agency received in 2008.

President Obama has vowed to return NASA to its glory days — to “inspire the world,” grow the economy and make America stronger — by funding, among other projects, climate change research and the completion of the International Space Station.

But congressional auditors have called for a “more disciplined approach” to projects like the Mars Science Laboratory, which has seen its cost skyrocket to $2.3 billion since October 2007, an increase of more than $657 million — an amount roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of Grenada.

"What is common among these and other programs is that whether they succeed or fail, they cost more to build and take longer to launch than planned," according to a Government Accountability Office report released last month on NASA's large-scale programs. "As a result, NASA is able to accomplish less than it plans with the money it is allocated, and it is forced to make unplanned trade-offs among its projects — shorting one to pay for the mistakes of another."

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The cost of getting NASA’s Ares I rocket to the International Space Station, a program that faces formidable technical risks, has grown from $28 billion to estimates as high as $49 billion — or $376 for each of today's more than 13 million unemployed Americans.

The agency's complete 2010 fiscal year budget isn’t expected to be released until next month, but acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese has said the "fiscally responsible" plan reflects Obama's desire for a robust and innovative space program. A look at NASA's $17.6 billion 2009 fiscal year budget reveals some eye-popping numbers, including:

— $5.78 billion for space shuttle and International Space Station projects, equivalent to London's original estimated cost of hosting the 2012 Olympic Games;

— $577 million for heliophysics, the study of the sun and its effect on the solar system, or the amount of Missouri transportation projects to be funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act;

— $447 million for aeronautics research, or the deficit currently facing Texas’ unemployment compensation fund;

— $173 million for entrepreneurs to develop commercial transport capabilities to the International Space Station, or the USDA’s total estimated cost of providing food, shelter and other necessities to 847 middle-income U.S. children for 18 years.

Here’s a breakdown of the $1.1 billion in cost overruns plaguing NASA’s key projects, and what that money could procure elsewhere:

— Mars Science Laboratory: Costs have risen $657.4 million since October 2007. That’s equivalent to the gross domestic product of Grenada, according to the 2008 CIA World Factbook;

— NPOESS Preparatory Project: Since October 2006, the price tag for NASA’s satellite to study atmospheric and sea temperatures has ballooned $121.8 million, or the amount New York Gov. David Paterson proposed to save in a December budget plan by deferring five days' pay until state workers end their employment or the state’s dismal financial situation allows repayment;

— Kepler: NASA's spacecraft designed to discover Earth-like planets, launched last month from Cape Canaveral after a 9-month delay and a $97 million increase in costs, or the amount Oregon lawmakers hope to save in the state's budget by asking unionized state workers to agree to 24 unpaid furlough days in 2009-11;

— Glory: Costs for the agency's $347 million global warming satellite have increased since October 2007 by $81.8 million, or the amount of cuts facing Florida's nursing homes amid the state's $6.1 billion shortfall;

— Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope: Launched in June 2008, NASA's $774.5 million telescope to analyze gamma rays from a low Earth orbit has risen $51.2 million, or Virginia's portion of the latest round of stimulus funds to improve its public housing;

— Orbiting Carbon Observatory: In February, NASA's $278 million satellite to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide crashed into the Indian Ocean after failing to reach orbit. Cost overruns for the project had reached $37.9 mission, or the amount of federal funding recently announced to make Delaware homes and businesses more energy efficient;

— Solar Dynamics Observatory: The $817 million satellite to study the sun has been delayed 17 months to January 2010 as costs have risen some $31.5 million since October 2006, or roughly the amount Iowa spent on its food-stamps program in February;

— Aquarius: The launch of NASA's $253 million satellite that will analyze Earth's water cycle has been delayed to May 2010, and costs have increased some $11.7 million, roughly equal to the amount of federal stimulus funding recently awarded to the Veteran Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System for emergency power distribution upgrades and a new plumbing system;

— Dawn: Launched in September 2007, this $465 million asteroid probe is expected to visit asteroids Vesta and Ceres during its 3-billion mile trip to better understand the formation of the solar system. Costs have increased $4.6 million since October 2006, roughly equal to the deficit facing the city of Bloomington, Ind.