NASA Has Bookkeeping Woes

In this photo taken by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and released by Korea News Service, people wade through a flooded street in Pyongyang, North Korea, Saturday Aug 11, 2007.
NASA's books are in such bad shape that an accounting firm was unable to complete an audit, and officials are still uncertain about the final cost of the International Space Station, the space agency's leader said.

Making his first appearance as NASA administrator before the House Science committee, Sean O'Keefe said Wednesday that officials of the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers were unable to complete the agency audit because of incomplete documentation from NASA.

O'Keefe said new government bookkeeping standards have created uncertainty about how some NASA investments should be classified.

"NASA books are in such disarray that there should be a real alarm," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. He blamed much of the problem on the Clinton administration, noting that O'Keefe assumed his new job only a few weeks ago.

O'Keefe said NASA will not know until late summer how much more it will cost to complete the International Space Station. An earlier report said that NASA faces a cost overrun of about $600 million.

In response to an independent task force review, the Bush administration's 2003 budget reduced the spending for the International Space Station by $229 million, a 13.3 percent cut.

The budget shelves plans to build a new spacecraft that could be used to return astronauts from the space station to Earth in the event of an emergency. The current "lifeboat," provided by the Russians, will hold only three crew members.

The budget also lacks funds to expand living quarters to house seven crew members, up from the current three.

The effect of the cuts, said Rep. Ralph M. Hall, D-Texas, is that the three astronauts on the space station "will be able to do little more than just maintain the station's systems."

Hall said the cutback in U.S. support of the space station has angered international partners such as Canada, the European Space Agency and Japan. The partners, he said, find the small crew limit unacceptable and are threatening to cut financial support.

If the Bush administration does not fully support the station, said Hall, then it will be hard "to justify to the American taxpayers as being worth the billions of dollars that have been invested in it."

"We will have a space station whose purpose seems to be little more than serving as the latest 'in' destination for pop music celebrities and millionaires," said the Texas congressman.

A California millionaire visited the space station last spring as history's first space tourist. Several celebrities have since expressed interest in making such a trip, using a Russian craft to move between Earth and the orbiting station.

O'Keefe said his agency is studying ways to assure that NASA complies with its international space station agreements. At the same time, he said, the agency is undergoing a cost analysis and will not have final answers until this summer.

"We will identify all of the options by this summer," O'Keefe promised.

He said that although safety concerns now limit the space station crew size to three, the U.S. astronaut corps is evaluating ways to put more people aboard.

"Abandoning the station is considered an absolute last resort," said O'Keefe. Instead, the astronauts are looking at a "safe haven concept." Under such a plan, there would be a chamber or room aboard the station where astronauts could seek refuge in event of an emergency. In effect, they could wait in the safe haven until they were rescued instead of leaving the station to return to Earth.