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Senator's waste investigation finds NASA blows nearly $1 million annually creating Martian food

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A new report by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, says NASA spends nearly $1 million annually on research for foods to be consumed by astronauts on Mars. (Photo from "Wastebook 2012")

It likely will be decades before an American astronaut sets foot on Mars, but NASA officials are spending almost $1 million a year researching the best food for the Red Planet's first visitors from Earth.

So far, scientists at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii have used the NASA funds to create recipes for Martian pizza and about 100 other dishes to be consumed on a mission that likely won't happen before the year 2030, according to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK.

"You don't need to be a rocket scientist to realize the millions of dollars being spent to taste test Martian meals that may never be served is lost in a black hole," an unimpressed Coburn said.

The Martian culinary research is conducted under NASA's Advanced Food Technology Project, which was singled out in the 2012 edition of Coburn's annual "Wastebook" chronicle of the 100 worst examples of wasteful and unnecessary federal spending he and his staff uncovered in the past year.

"Washington spent much of the year deadlocked over whether to cut spending or increase taxes to address our fiscal crisis, all the while, allowing or even supporting these questionable projects," Coburn said.

Also listed in the Wastebook is a $300,000 Value-Added Producer Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to an Idaho firm to market and sell caviar.

But the federal bureaucrats responsible for the caviar grant aren't interested in selling more of the luxury item to members of the 1 percent. Fish Producers of Idaho is supposed to use the federal tax dollars to encourage "the masses" to eat more caviar.

Coburn isn't smiling on this one, either, noting that "the federal government spending $300,000 of taxpayer funds to promote caviar or any other lucrative luxury cuisine, however, is just plain fishy."

Another example highlighted by the Wastebook is the $2 million spent annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on service fees for maintaining bank accounts for an estimated 28,000 grants that have been exhausted.

The fees paid by HHS for these "phantom accounts" total at least $173,000 a month but the wasteful spending could be stopped easily, according to the Wastebook:

"The agency that awarded an expired or fully spent grant simply needs to submit a code to close out the account. To help users, system reports indicate accounts waiting to be closed with a special symbol. Until that occurs, the accounts continue to accumulate monthly service fees."

Then there is the bridge to nowhere in Ohio that officials are spending more than half a million tax dollars to refurbish. It's the Stevenson Road Covered Bridge, built in 1877 and today not connected to any road with traffic.

The reason it's not connected to travelled roads is the fact that in 2003 a modern bridge was constructed to replace it. The covered bridge is now considered a national historic structure, at least by the federal program devoted to preserving old covered bridges.

When local officials applied for the federal money, according to the Wastebook, "the county's engineer - who approved submitting the grant application - stated, 'this is money set aside in a transportation bill by senators and congressmen, and if I didn't get it, someone else would.'"

Other notable examples from the Wastebook include:

• The National Science Foundation awarded a New York theater company nearly $700,000 to create and produce a musical about climate change and biodiversity. The result was so bad, according to a reviewer quoted by the Wastebook, "the audience spent an evening visibly fighting off sleep."

• Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials spent $75.3 million replacing two flood-damaged buildings on the University of Iowa campus that only needed repairs. "Not only did officials inaccurately estimate the cost of replacement, they also overestimated repair costs by including more expenses than allowed per FEMA guidelines," the Wastebook said.

• "Almost 7,000 Medicaid providers in just three states owed $791 million in unpaid federal taxes but received $6.6 billion in Medicaid reimbursements in just one year. The Wastebook quoted Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators who said they found tax-cheating dentists, doctors and other medical services providers.

• School Improvement Grants (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education consumed $1.6 billion, but at least one state, Washington, has found the grants make little difference. Schools there used $5.8 million in grant money to slightly extend the school day and add administrative staff. Two of those schools even kept the same principals in place.618 Other schools paid for extra gym and art teachers, consultants, and intramural sports classes."

Go here for the complete report.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.