WASHINGTON — NASA failed to account for billions of dollars spent on the space shuttle and International Space Station, according to a report published Tuesday.
The report by the General Accounting Office, which conducts investigations ordered by Congress, found NASA has yet to comply with a 2000 law that requires the agency to verify how much it spends each year on its two most expensive programs.
A NASA spokeswoman said the harsh GAO finding stems from an accounting dispute between the two agencies.
"We believe we have given sufficient data to GAO that could be used to verify our compliance," said Sarah Keegan, a NASA budget specialist.
Investigators did not conclude that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has spent its budget money irresponsibly.
But they said the space agency's accounting systems are so convoluted they could not figure out what amount of federal funding was applied to the International Space Station program and what amount went to the grounded shuttle fleet.
"We have no basis for verifying NASA's charges against the limits," wrote Gregory Kutz, the GAO's director of financial management and assurance.
The finding comes as no surprise. The GAO has issued similar reports every year since the 2000 law was passed in an attempt to hold NASA accountable for repeated cost overruns on the International Space Station program.
What makes the report unusual is that it reveals NASA has made little accounting progress under Administrator Sean O'Keefe, a budget specialist who was assigned to the agency to fix its chronic management and financial weaknesses.
The 2000 law capped NASA spending for the International Space Station at $25 billion. Keegan said the agency will send Congress a formal report in May saying NASA has not exceeded the cap.
That assertion was omitted from the president's fiscal 2005 budget request because of an editorial oversight, Keegan said.
"We believe we're compliant with the cost cap," she said.
Also Tuesday, a task force of U.S. and Russian officials gave the green light to an upcoming crew exchange aboard the International Space Station.
"With NASA trying to fix the space shuttle and the delays in completing the space station, the last thing we need is for NASA to fail to provide information about these programs' costs," said Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, senior Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "In my mind, this raises questions about NASA's ability to manage programs of the scale the president wants to undertake in the future."