WASHINGTON — NASA, whose successes helped cement America's reputation as the world's technological leader, is facing a series of money woes that could thwart its hopes of remaining the globe's leader in space exploration.
A blue-ribbon presidential panel is expected to advise the White House later this month that returning astronauts to the moon by 2020, as former President George W. Bush proposed, is financially impossible under NASA's $18.7 billion budget.
Meanwhile, NASA officials told a committee of the National Academy of Sciences this week that the costs of major scientific projects — such as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope or a new Mars lander — are running far above the funds available from the White House or Congress.
The twin blows could have far ranging impact, not only on the world's perception of U.S. scientific prowess, but also on an unknown range of technological innovations yet to be realized. Many commonplace items used by Americans today, from dehydrated food to GPS devices, have flowed from the space program during the past half century.
This is a "potentially pivotal moment in our nation's space program," Kenneth Ford, the chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, told Congress earlier this summer. "Choices and decisions will be made that will determine what we can and cannot accomplish in space for the next 40 years."
"You cannot do this program on this budget," said Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and a member of the moon mission advisory panel. "We can't afford to even start human exploration (of the moon)."
As for the scientific missions, "We're really blowing it on our cost estimates," said Marc Allen, a planning manager in the space agency's Science Mission Directorate. "Everybody's motivated to paint a rosy picture."
Prospects for getting billions more for NASA from either the administration or Congress are dim at a time when concerns about budget deficits also threaten a health care overhaul and could require fights over new tax increases.
A wide range of proposed projects are in danger of not being completed or, at least seriously delayed. Thomas Coonce, who runs NASA's cost analysis division, recently told a National Academy of Science committee that Congress set up to explore cost overruns said 27 scientific missions are running an average of 43 percent over budget — a total of $4.1 billion in unplanned expenses.
Among those missions:
_ The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Originally expected to cost about $1 billion, the new telescope's price tag has quadrupled. Launch has been set back from 2011 to 2014.
_ The Mars Science Laboratory (now named Curiosity). A much larger, more powerful successor to the rovers Spirit and Opportunity now on the Red Planet, Curiosity's estimated cost has risen from $1.6 billion to at least $2.3 billion. The launch has been delayed for two years, to 2011.
_ The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a climate observation satellite that will serve NASA, the Defense Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The price has ballooned from $5 billion to $17 billion. Launch has been delayed from 2005 to 2013.
Coonce gave the academy committee a list of 15 reasons for the cost and schedule overruns. The primary cause, he said, was "over-optimism" early in the mission planning stage.
NASA project managers almost always low-balled the costs to improve their chances of winning approval from higher-ups.
"They fear if they give a big number, they're going to cancel the program," Victoria Hamilton, a planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, told the committee. "People are afraid they'll lose their jobs."
Other reasons cited by Coonce included unrealistic schedules, unanticipated launch delays or cost increases, insufficient financial reserves, and lack of time and money during the early planning stages.
Meanwhile, the presidential advisory panel is finalizing its report to the White House on the human space flight program known as Constellation.
The Obama administration asked Congress for $4.5 billion for Constellation for the fiscal year that starts in October — a fraction of the approximately $100 billion it would cost to return people to the moon.
"One of the things that has troubled NASA the most in recent years is having objectives that they don't have the resources to match," said Norman Augustine, the former chief executive of space and defense contractor Lockheed Martin and the head of the panel. "We might have to face up to investing more."
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