A backlog of thousands of expired NASA contracts that have taken years to close out could be costing the space agency as much at $61 million, according to an audit from the agency's inspector general.
An estimated $44 million of those savings could be put to use elsewhere in the agency, the IG said.
NASA spent about 80 percent of its 2012 budget on contracts, grants and cooperative agreements for goods, services and research.
When any of these deals are completed, NASA must review and close out any of the associated files. Any unused funds remaining must be either returned to the Treasury or redistributed somewhere else within the agency.
Purchase orders must be closed out within 90 days, while on the other end of the scale, cost-reimbursable, time and material, and labor-hour contracts are allowed to remain open for up to 36 months.
The report found 47 percent of the expired contracts weren't closed within the time frame required. The lag time ranged from an average 178 days for purchase, delivery and task orders to almost seven years for cost-type contracts.
Of the 203 expired contracts the IG reviewed, 57 percent were more than a year overdue.
Renee Juhans, executive officer for NASA's inspector general's office, said the complicated close-out process is partly to blame.
"Contracts do take longer because there are more steps and more documentation," Juhans said.
Some interagency agreements can be particularly problematic. For example, NASA has an agreement with the Army for construction and engineering design services. NASA and the Army told the auditors that it is sometimes difficult to get final invoices from the partner agency.
In some cases, this can take years, creating a domino effect.
The report also found two contracts that were closed without a final audit. In one case, the procurement official waited seven years to request a final audit from the Defense Contract Audit Agency, at which point the DCAA said it had become inefficient to perform the audit.
Since 2000, NASA has contracted out its closeout processing to a private company.
In February 2013, NASA contracted with Knoxville, Tenn.-based Brandan Enterprises to help clear the backlog and allow agency staff to focus on other aspects of contracts management. However, the agency is not using the company's services to its full advantage, the IG said.
All of NASA's centers aren't required to use Brandan's services, and different centers use different processes for the same type of closeout.
For example, at three of NASA's centers, procurement officials obtained all of the required paperwork from the contractor or grantee, including financial statements and invoices, then returned or redistributed the funds before sending the contract to Brandan for the final review and data entry.
Other centers left the entire closeout process to Brandan.
As of last September, NASA had more than 15,000 contracts or purchase orders awaiting final close-out, while Brandan has reported a backlog of more than 4,200, demonstrating a discrepancy between what the agency chooses to handle itself and what it sends to Brandan.