WASHINGTON—Top officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration unveiled plans this week for a comprehensive, multibillion-dollar delay—the agency's most ambitious postponement of cosmic exploration ever.

The unprecedented delay has reportedly brought together the nation's foremost aerospace engineers, whose combined efforts have already added 18 months of rescheduled meetings to the daring mission.

While he could not lock down any specifics regarding completion dates or construction deadlines, NASA associate administrator Christopher Scolese said this latest endeavor will be on a scale and time frame greater than anything the agency has attempted to put off before.

"Delays of this magnitude were once the stuff of science fiction," Scolese told reporters during a noon press conference Monday that actually started around 3:15 p.m. "But now, thanks to a number of long-overdue technological advances, this historic delay will stretch the very limits of what humankind can push back indefinitely."

According to NASA officials, the epic postponement will occur in three progressively longer stages. The first, predicted to last anywhere from three to five years and cost an estimated $13.8 billion, is tentatively scheduled to begin in late 2012. The second stage—which will ultimately be broken up into 14 smaller stages—will comprise a series of advanced timetable adjustments that, if successful, could delay human beings from exploring the outmost reaches of the known galaxy for decades to come.

The third stage is largely theoretical at this point.

"Never before has man dared to fall behind on such a sweeping scale," said Brenda Win, head administrator of the newly established delay-management team, which is expected to be named sometime next month or maybe the month after. "A postponement like this only happens once in a lifetime. This will be the series of setbacks you'll tell your grandchildren about."

Added Win, "Unless our initial estimates are wrong or the weather proves unfavorable, in which case they'll probably be able to see it for themselves."

Working tirelessly to derail the project are distinguished astrophysicists from around the world, as well as countless administrators, bureaucrats, division heads, deputy division heads, and deputy associate division heads. Also joining the effort are seven highly trained, flight-ready NASA astronauts, currently on standby for the June 2007 launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

"I would consider it an honor and a privilege to be part of even the first four years of this incredible delay," said Steven Tani, a pilot and International Space Station flight engineer. "Now all that's left to do is wait for my security clearance, sit through the first of 10 mandatory physical examinations, and proceed with the six-month period of microgravity acclimation training so that we can start to begin getting this delay underway. I just hope it doesn't take as long as last time."

In their first official request to secure additional funding from Congress, NASA officials stressed the monumental significance of the delay, calling it "the ultimate manifestation of mankind's insatiable desire to look out across the galaxy and dream of writing a grant proposal, waiting for the necessary governmental approval, building detailed experimental models, establishing adequate requirements for System Procedure, triple-checking mission parameters, absorbing massive budget cuts, and canceling the launch date."

"When we have finally finished here, the universe will see there is no end to what man can entangle in red tape," Scolese wrote in the stirring statement. "Even as we speak, our top people are dragging their feet on what will become the longest and most profound delay in the planet's history."

"Mark my words: In our lifetime, NASA will delay putting a man on Mars," Scolese continued. "Well, maybe not in my lifetime. I'm almost 50."