Trump wants to shut­ter NASA of­fice pop­u­lar with Congress and kids

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY SARAH KA­PLAN sarah.ka­plan@wash­ More at wash­ing­ton­ blogs/speak­ing-of-science

Le­land Melvin was, in his own words, “a skinny kid from pub­lic schools in Lynch­burg, Va., who never in my wildest dreams thought of be­ing an as­tro­naut.” Boys like him aimed to be­come ath­letes, and that’s where Melvin seemed headed: He went to col­lege on a foot­ball schol­ar­ship and got drafted by the Detroit Lions af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

But then Melvin found out about NASA’s Grad­u­ate Stu­dent Re­searchers Project, which would pay for him to take night classes for a mas­ter’s de­gree in ma­te­ri­als science engi­neer­ing. When a ham­string in­jury de­railed his foot­ball ca­reer, he had science to fall back on. Melvin got a job build­ing sen­sors for rock­ets at Lan­g­ley Re­search Cen­ter, then a sec­ond fel­low­ship from NASA that al­lowed him to take more engi­neer­ing cour­ses. Even­tu­ally Melvin be­came as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor for the NASA Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion, which runs the same pro­grams that funded his ed­u­ca­tion.

In be­tween, he flew to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion aboard the space shut­tle. Twice.

“If it hadn’t been for NASA Ed­u­ca­tion I wouldn’t have been funded to go to school, to work at NASA Lan­g­ley, to be­come an as­tro­naut,” Melvin said.

The $115 mil­lion NASA Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion is one of sev­eral science pro­grams on the chop­ping block in Pres­i­dent Trump’s 2018 bud­get pro­posal. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency stands to lose more than 30 per­cent of its bud­get, and the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health could shrink by $6 bil­lion. The amount of money in­volved is smaller, but to sci­en­tists who have ben­e­fited from the Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion, which rep­re­sents just half a per­cent of NASA’s over­all bud­get, its elim­i­na­tion is hard to swal­low.

“It’s how I started my ca­reer in the space in­dus­try. It’s how so many peo­ple I know got started in the space in­dus­try,” said Laura Seward For­czyk, a plan­e­tary sci­en­tist and space con­sul­tant who got three in­tern­ships through the NASA Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion.

For­czyk'’s in­ter­est in science stems from the time as­tro­naut Sally Ride, the first Amer­i­can woman in space, vis­ited her school as part of a NASA ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram. She hopes to fly in space her­self and has par­tic­i­pated in a train­ing ses­sion for po­ten­tial as­tro­naut ap­pli­cants con­ducted by the Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion.

“It would be dev­as­tat­ing if all that didn’t ex­ist any more,” she said.

Though the Science Mis­sion Direc­torate and the in­di­vid­ual NASA cen­ters op­er­ate some out­reach pro­grams, the Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion is re­spon­si­ble for co­or­di­nat­ing those ef­forts. It also runs a space camp for chil­dren, de­vel­ops cur­ricu­lums for teach­ers, and funds schol­ar­ships and fel­low­ships for young sci­en­tists, par­tic­u­larly women and un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties. The of­fice’s big­gest ini­tia­tive is the $40 mil­lion Space Grant pro­gram, which funded For­czyk’s in­tern­ships.

“A lot of times the only way women or mi­nori­ties can ac­tu­ally suc­ceed is through th­ese grants,” For­czyk said. “It’s the only way they con­tinue get­ting fund­ing.”

The Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion has faced scru­tiny be­fore. Its bud­get de­clined over the past decade from $180 mil­lion dol­lars in 2010 to $115 mil­lion last year. In 2015, an au­dit con­ducted by the Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral con­cluded that NASA Ed­u­ca­tion needed to “col­lab­o­rate and con­sol­i­date” its pro­grams, which it said were frag­mented and not ef­fec­tively mon­i­tored.

Trump’s bud­get pro­posal, which was re­leased early Thurs­day, crit­i­cized the Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion as “du­plica­tive” and said it had failed to im­ple­ment a NASAwide ed­u­ca­tion strat­egy.

In a state­ment re­leased Thurs­day, act­ing NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Robert Light­foot said that the space agency would ab­sorb its ed­u­ca­tion and out­reach ef­forts into the Science Mis­sion Direc­torate.

Melvin, who re­tired from NASA in 2014 and works as a writer, mo­ti­va­tional speaker and STEAM (science, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing, arts and math­e­mat­ics) ad­vo­cate, said that the Science Mis­sion Direc­torate may not be able to co­or­di­nate agency-wide initiatives as well as the Ed­u­ca­tion Of­fice does. The Science Mis­sion Direc­torate’s bud­get for ed­u­ca­tion and out­reach is also much smaller than the Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion’s — about $40 mil­lion. Un­less the di­vi­sion gets new fund­ing (none is al­lo­cated in the pres­i­dent’s bud­get pro­posal) many of NASA Ed­u­ca­tion’s pro­grams would be cut or killed.

Two weeks ago, Congress passed the “In­spir­ing the Next Space Pi­o­neers, In­no­va­tors, Re­searchers, and Ex­plor­ers Women Act,” which di­rects NASA to de­velop a spe­cific plan for pro­mot­ing women in STEM fields. Melvin also noted that the NASA Ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram MUREP, which helps fund stu­dents seek­ing STEM de­grees at his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and univer­si­ties, will be elim­i­nated — weeks af­ter Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der mov­ing over­sight of a fed­eral ini­tia­tive to sup­port HBCUs from the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment to the White House.

“We can’t say ‘we sup­port this’ out of one side of our mouths and then go and cut the pro­grams that fuel them,” Melvin said. He said he didn’t un­der­stand the pres­i­dent’s rea­son­ing in elim­i­nat­ing the ed­u­ca­tion of­fice: “$115 mil­lion — that’s a round­ing er­ror in the grand scheme of things.”

(It's less than 0.003 per­cent of the fed­eral bud­get.)

“But the ef­fec­tive­ness of those pro­grams for get­ting kids to stay in col­lege, get­ting them into the STEM pipe­line, there is no way to re­pro­duce that if you cut that money out.”

Casey Dreier, direc­tor of space pol­icy for the Plan­e­tary So­ci­ety, said the cut may not be ap­proved. In the past sev­eral years, Congress has al­lo­cated more money for NASA’s Of­fice of Ed­u­ca­tion than the pres­i­dent re­quested. And many of its pro­grams, in­clud­ing Space Grant, fund of­fices and projects in all 50 states, mak­ing them pop­u­lar with pretty much ev­ery­one.

Ge­or­gia Tech pro­fes­sor Stephen Ruf­fin, who chairs the na­tional coun­cil of NASA Space Grant direc­tors, said he was “very con­cerned” by the pro­posed elim­i­na­tion of the ed­u­ca­tion of­fice.

“The na­tion wants a NASA space pro­gram and avi­a­tion pro­gram that con­tin­ues to lead the world,” he said. “Un­less we train peo­ple, we’re not go­ing to have that.”

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