NASA'S Luxury, At Your Expense

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Everyone knows exploring space is dangerous, and the costs are astronomical. Which is why, just last month, NASA was able to squeeze $1 billion extra from the Senate.

That very same day, NASA also posted an online notice few people saw - seeking four-star hotel bids for its December awards, CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

The awards are to honor workers who've contributed to flight safety. But it's not just a low-key dinner for a handful of the best and brightest.

Try five days and four nights at a luxury Florida hotel for 300 honorees and their guest. Fancy receptions and front-row tickets to the most exciting show in the space business, the shuttle launch.

All paid for by your tax dollars.

"I think it's kind of ironic that they're gonna be extravagant at how they spend money and they're coming to us saying they want more money," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said.

Former astronaut Bill Nelson made the case for NASA.

"Right now we're at a critical point because NASA has been starved of funds," Nelson, who is also a legislator, said.

At least they won't go hungry at the awards.

There's a reception to feed 750, with a "carving station with beef and turkey," coconut fried shrimp, spring rolls, shrimp wrapped with bacon, 5-6 desserts, antipasto plates to include assorted meats, cheeses, grilled vegetables and assorted marinated vegetables, breads. And in case anyone's still hungry, that's followed by a three-course sit-down dinner.

And most of the honorees? They're not NASA employees. They're from Boeing and other billion-dollar contractors that aren't picking up the tab.

Bryan O'Connor is a NASA spokesman. What does he say to the criticism that these events are frivolous or extravagant?

"I think what I would do is ask the people who we have honored to give me an idea if they think this thing was reasonable, if they felt they were honored properly," he said.

Attkisson said: "I wouldn't ask the honorees, I would ask the people who pay for it: taxpayers."

"It's the cost of dinner and putting people up in a hotel for a couple of days," O'Connor said.

What is the cost? Counting the reception ($64,000), dinner ($35,000), awards ($28,000), ground transportation (tour: $7,700; launch: $20,200), airfare ($105,000), hotel and food ($135,000 together), you're talking $400,000 to $500,000.

If you think that's pricey, consider this: the NASA holds its big awards every time there's a shuttle launch. December's extravaganza will be the third one in 2007. Honoring all those people is costing you about $4 million a year.

If they'd have half as much money to honor people, would they be able to do it?

"If we were told that we had to reduce it I think we would reduce the number of honorees rather than trying to go to a poor place or a place that doesn't have good service," O'Connor said.

No risk of that anytime soon. All systems are go for NASA's December conference at a luxury Orlando hotel.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.