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GAO Probes NASA Plans to Shut Down Moon Program

Rocket Test Flight Comes at Crucial Time for NASA
Daybreak on Oct. 20, 2009 finds NASA's towering 327-foot-tall Ares I-X rocket slowly making its way up to Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for an Oct. 27 test flight. (Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.)

WASHINGTON — More than a dozenmembers of the U.S. House of Representatives have asked congressionalinvestigators to scrutinize NASA's plans to shut down its Constellation programand determine whether or not the U.S. space agency is breaking the law.

In a March 12 letter to the head of the U.S.Government Accountability Office (GAO), 16 House lawmakers assert that legislation passed in December prohibits NASAfrom terminating or slowing its Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort tobuild new rockets and spacecraft optimized for lunar missions that PresidentBarack Obama proposed abandoning in his 2011 budget request.

The legislation in question — anomnibus spending package approved in December that funds NASA and other federalagencies through this September —?prohibits the agency from endingprograms and activities that are part of the Constellation program, andprevents the agency from initiating new ones.

"We believe that interpretation of thisbill language should take into account the fact that these activities are noteasily stopped and started but rather are long-term contract plans (as long as36 months out) involving highly specialized engineering teams both ingovernment and in the private sector," states the letter, which wasspearheaded by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a member of the HouseAppropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that oversees NASAspending. Most of the lawmakers who signed the letter — including thetwo Democrats, Reps. Gene Green of Texas and Suzanne Kosmas from Florida —?are from states that play big roles in Constellation.

The letter also asks the GAO to determinewhether NASA is abusing the Anti-Deficiency Act when the agency instructsemployees to conserve 2010 funds intended for Constellation.

"We believe that this act does not applyto the situation, particularly given the fact that Congress has specificallyforbidden the termination not just of the program, but of programs andactivities," the letter states. "Congress, therefore, not NASA, isresponsible for contract shutdown costs and will provide them —?in[2011], in the event that Congress approves the President's plan in whole or inpart."

The lawmakers also ask GAO to determinewhether NASA is violating the Impoundment Act by withholding 2010 funds "ratherthan proceeding with contracts which represent a normal schedule of [2010]activity implied by Congress's refusal to allow NASA to terminate theConstellation program," according to the letter.

Finally, the lawmakers contend NASA is using "quitea few employees" to develop new plans for its human space exploration,work that may be "far more extensive than simply discussing options andplans," according to the letter. "Rather, senior-level programpersonnel seem to be spending all of their days on the new plans instead of onthe Constellation programs, projects and activities, which are their jobs(according to the [2010] bill language)."

Although the letter does not call on GAO toissue a report on its finding, it does ask GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaroto expedite an investigation of NASA employees tasked with developing new humanspaceflight plans. In the letter, the lawmakers assert NASA has failed toprovide an answer to congressional staff inquiries submitted Feb. 22 about whois working on the new plans, how much of their workday is consumed by suchtasks and from which payroll accounts the employees are being paid.

"This last point is important since itis unlikely that there is substantial payroll funding leftover from perviousfiscal years," the letter states. "If NASA's actions do indeedcomprise the initiation of a new program, and [2010] funds are being used topay those personnel, NASA is in violation of the bill language and theseplanning activities must stop immediately."

The letter instructs Dodaro to respond to thelatter question "separate from the other aspects, with the goal of aconclusion in approximately 60 days, as opposed to the typical 100 to 120 daysrequired."

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Amy Klamper

Amy Klamper is a space reporter and former staff writer for the space industry news publication SpaceNews. From 2004 to 2010, Amy covered U.S. space policy, NASA and space industry professionals for SpaceNews. Her stories included profiles on major players in the space industry, space policy work in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as national policy set by the White House.