Commentary: NASA must start playing by budget rules

The nation's space agency stays in a sort of constant state of alert over its budget, worried that the transfer of power from one president to another will mean less enthusiasm for exploration. But the Government Accountability Office, which has long had NASA under its scope, rightly questions whether the agency is doing enough to accurately estimate the costs of various projects.

Auditors recently reported that NASA had exceeded cost projections by $1 billion and change from just the last couple of years. This is all the more worrisome, of course, because of the deficit-ridden federal budget and the need for so much help for institutions and individuals back here on Earth. President Obama has targeted waste. And with $1 billion going to NASA from the federal stimulus package, taxpayers have a right to demand a better performance.

NASA already is under watch, in a way, required to formally notify Congress if a particular program has cost overruns greater than 15 percent (a pretty generous window). It may be that a tougher restriction is needed. Certainly more internal oversight is a must.

The agency is important, make no mistake. Its missions follow in the tradition of world, and out of this world, exploration, and important technological advances have been made in the course of carrying out the moon landing and space shuttle flights. The United States must not abandon the search for new frontiers. And the bravery of astronauts who even now are conducting a space shuttle mission is both admirable and inspiring.

But NASA cannot expect unlimited leeway with regard to its budget, and endless patience from the GAO or members of Congress. It has to play by the rules, and that means being candid when it comes to the cost of what it wants to do.

This editorial appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer. To read more editorials from the N&O, visit The (Raleigh) News & Observer.