WASHINGTON — Most nights it's possible to look skyward with a pair of cheap binoculars and see a $100,000 mistake circling the Earth. The glowing object -- an orbiting NASA tool bag -- was lost last month by an astronaut during a routine spacewalk.
The canvas-and-acrylic caddy contained two grease guns, a scraper, a trash bag and some wipes, hardly cutting-edge technology. So why did it cost $100,000?
NASA officials said they had no answer to that question -- beyond the fact that, as spokesman Allard Beutel put it, "space flight is expensive." That expense is drawing serious scrutiny from the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama.
Of 74 questions submitted to the agency by Obama's NASA transition team, more than half asked about basic spending issues, including cost overruns.
It's clear that NASA's long-standing inability to manage its money has attracted the team's attention.
For nearly two decades, NASA and its out-of-this-world projects have made a "high-risk" list compiled by government auditors because of cost overruns totaling millions -- sometimes billions -- of dollars.
The designation applies to programs that are "impeding effective government and costing the government billions of dollars each year," according to the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency.
NASA has been on this list since 1990.
"Our space program is running inefficiently, and without sufficient regard to cost performance," wrote Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator who has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Michael Griffin, the current NASA administrator.
In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Stern called the cost overruns a "cancer" that has cost the agency's science program about $5 billion over five years.
Few missions seem immune. In 1988, when NASA engineers started designing the International Space Station, the orbiting complex was to cost $23 billion and be completed by 1996. Today, the cost has topped $100 billion -- and it still is not finished.
Another project, a science satellite named Glory, was conceived more than a decade ago to help scientists better understand how the sun and particles in the atmosphere affect Earth's climate. Since 2007, its cost has jumped by nearly one-third, from $169 million to $221 million.
NASA says that part of the problem is the cutting-edge nature of what it does.
"We start these things out, and we admit up front we don't completely know how to do them. That is what makes them interesting," Griffin said recently.
Agency officials said they had improved financial controls -- including forcing managers to better estimate costs.
But the problem is so bad that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that NASA's new moon rocket would go over budget by as much as $7 billion. It based the estimate on an analysis of 72 other programs that blew their budgets by an average of about 50%.
NASA often blames its contractors, saying aerospace companies promise too much for too little and then cannot deliver at the bid price.
Auditors say NASA does a poor job of policing the companies.
NASA is involved in a lawsuit with an auditing company hired to review NASA contracts. The firm, Horn & Associates of Utah, says it has found millions of dollars in overpayments but was unable to get a full picture of the problem because NASA refused to let it see all its records.
In a complaint filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the firm cited one example in which a NASA employee at Johnson Space Center in Houston defended contractors, whom she called her "customers," and refused to go after some of the companies to refund the money that was overcharged.
NASA disputes the claim and the incident at Johnson Space Center.
The Glory satellite's cost overrun is mainly because the manufacturer, Raytheon Co., has blown the budget on one instrument: a sensor designed to measure tiny particles in the atmosphere, such as smog and volcanic ash.
NASA blames Raytheon for changing the team and the plant building the sensor.
"Raytheon has acknowledged that the problems with the instruments are theirs," said Stephen Volz, a top official in NASA's earth science division. "We are relying on the contractors to live up to their contract, and we have to work with them."
But he said through a spokesman that, rather than penalize Raytheon for its performance, NASA struck a deal "to share the financial burden of the additional costs required to complete the instrument." Raytheon officials declined to comment.
The Obama transition team wants to know how many similar problems the agency has. Its first question asks for a list of any programs that "may be experiencing delays and/or cost overruns that have not been publicly reported," according to a copy of the questionnaire obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.