Tuesday, August 26, 2008


NASA’s education funding is fairly small in the context of the funding levels proposed here. A roughly $500M to $900M increase in NASA funding for education purposes would represent a profound increase in attention to this important application area. As with most of the proposals here, the new funding would tend to be dedicated to educational space applications that happen to also help NASA achieve its space missions, including the key mission of helping the commercial space industry. This would be done by using commercial space services for educational purposes, as well as training the aerospace workforce that is needed by NASA, other government agencies, and commercial space.

1. Teachers in Space – A new “Teachers in Space” program for the new commercial suborbital space vehicles has already been proposed. In spite of the heading, the scope of the proposal described here is a bit broader than that one, although getting teachers into space is one way the effort could be implemented. The scale of the proposal here is perhaps a bit larger than the “Teachers in Space” proposal, which is possible because we have waved our hands in such a way as to make a significant portion of the Constellation funding available for education. Passenger safety for early suborbital passenger vehicles may be considered to be an issue, in which case experiments designed by teachers could be flown on these vehicles. Preferably both scenarios would happen. After all, some of the proposed suborbital vehicles are unmanned. The program would not be limited to teachers; its scope should include K-12, undergraduates, graduate students, university professors, and early government space employees, too. The program would not be limited to suborbital spaceflight for passengers or experiments. It would include anything from Zero-G flights, to existing suborbital rockets, to high-altitude balloon flights, future NewSpace suborbital rockets, and even small satellite or space station access for experiments. Whenever possible, the program would involve NASA purchasing tickets on commercial space or related vehicles for educational purposes like rewarding the “best” teachers or students, or simply giving access to space for students.

2. Student Competitions – Existing space and aviation student contests, like Cansat and Team America Rocketry Challenge, are an effective way to inspire students and to motivate them to learn about science, engineering, math, teamwork, and business. NASA could, in partnership with other interested organizations, increase the number and size of these challenges. Cash prizes are always appreciated, but prizes could also include educational components like scholarships, internships, or rewards to the sponsoring school to further add to the educational component.

3. Centennial Challenges – NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program has been shown to be a good motivator for university and high school student teams, and for education for people who otherwise are not students. Centennial Challenges also often are associated with related student challenges and other education initiatives. Sometimes the competitions are held on school campuses, or include an “Education Day” before the competition. At the same time, these challenges help solve problems of interest to NASA. It is suggested that Centennial Challenges be expanded with education in mind. The number of Centennial Challenges should be expanded considerably. The size of individual Centennial Challenges should be increased in many cases. There should be levels of prizes in each Centennial Challenge that are achievable by students. The subject matter of current Centennial Challenges tends to be oriented towards NASA’s missions, like Moon regolith excavation and processing. This should continue and more such competitions should be started, but the major focus of most of the new Centennial Challenges should be on using space to help solve problems on Earth, and giving incentives for innovations that solve problems for the broader space industry and all U.S. space agencies rather than just NASA. The allied organizations that run the competitions should be encouraged to offer educational materials related to their competition, to reach out to educational organizations, and to hold student competitions related to their main competition. As Centennial Challenges (or non-NASA prizes like the Ansari X PRIZE) are won, strong consideration should be made to continuing the competition with a new, more ambitious or complimentary round.

4. Funding Scholarships – NASA could fund scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students that are U.S. citizens in fields related to space and aeronautics using the new funding. This would help the nation’s educational efforts, and would also help NASA and the rest of the space industry. Space majors that could be funded might include Aerospace Engineering, Astronomy, Planetary Science, Mechanical Engineering, Robotics, Space Policy, Space Law, General Space Studies, Cosmology, and Aviation. Other majors that use space data, or that are Earth-focused majors that are complimentary to Planetary Science subjects, should also be included, like Geology, Atmospheric Science, Meteorology, Oceanography, Hydrology, Climatology, Remote Sensing, Geographical Information Systems, and other similar subjects. Suppose that $100M of the $500M or $900M per year is available for $10,000 scholarships. Ignoring administration overhead, that would enable 10,000 more scholarships in fields relevant to space each year. That would represent a dramatic increase in potential students earning space-related degrees, a big incentive for students to go to the trouble of earning those degrees, and more opportunities for space professors to teach and perhaps do space research as well.

5. University Space Projects – NASA could fund more university space projects of all sorts – experiments, robotic space missions, telescope observatories, data analysis, and more. Universities already play an important role in many of NASA’s programs – consider the University of California’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, the LASP and environmental science labs at the University of Colorado, the Planetary Science work at the University of Arizona, and many more. This new funding would expand the role of universities, and spread space capabilities to more universities and students. Projects that include students through graduate research assistantships and other educational jobs would be emphasized.

6. Space Museum Projects – NASA could get museums involved with more of its efforts with the additional funding. This would bring more talent to the NASA family. It would also allow NASA to contribute more to education that reaches the majority of students that aren’t in space fields.

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