Thursday, March 23, 2017

NASA Education: Funding Student Dreams

A week ago, the Trump Administration released a draft of the proposed FY2018 budget. My first instinct was to shrug it off. Congress creates the budget and usually ignores anything in the president's budget it doesn't agree with.

But then I saw a proposed cut within NASA: the entire NASA Education office. And I was up in arms. NASA Education initiatives and funding are what kick-started my career in the space industry. It's the reason I am where I am today. NASA Education, just a measly 0.000225% of the FY2017 budget, has wide-reaching results around the country for countless numbers of students and the general public.

The NASA Space Grant Consortium is under the NASA Education program. In all 50 states plus Puerto Rico, students are given opportunities they wouldn't normally have, especially if they don't live near a NASA center. US taxpayers pay for NASA's $19 billion budget, and NASA gives back to taxpayers in so many ways. NASA Education with its many programs such as Space Grant is a way to reach back to all regions of the country.

For this Philadelphian, NASA Education gave me my first two research opportunities. After my freshman year of college, Delaware Space Grant funded my astronomy research at Villanova University. (I'm not sure why Delaware and not Pennsylvania; I didn't ask.) Pennsylvania Space Grant approved my application for my first internship, NASA Academy at Marshall Space Flight Center, which Florida Space Grant ultimately paid for because I was enrolled in a Florida university. With those two summers of research experience, I was accepted into my top choice graduate school.

NASA Education funds more than just internships. In grad school, I was awarded a NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP) fellowship. Being a NASA GSRP fellow meant I could continue my studies in high-energy astrophysics and continue to work with the team at NASA MSFC.

I also have Space Grant to thank for giving me the opportunity to take one step closer to my dream of becoming an astronaut. Florida Space Grant funded my scientist astronaut training at the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center where I received my Suborbital Scientist Astronaut Training wings.

Space Grant also sponsored my unofficial internship at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Swamp Works. I conducted work beneficial to NASA's goals and related to my doctoral research with Florida Space Grant's support.

And then there are NASA programs I participated in that NASA Education may have had a hand in, I'm not sure. As a high school sophomore, I job shadowed scientists and engineers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and attended a workshop for high schools about women in science, including NASA satellite engineers. I attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, which is privately funded but also benefits from NASA Education. Astronaut Sally Ride visited my high school when I was a senior to speak about inspiring children to pursue their dreams. Who knows what else NASA Education has touched in my life.

And this is just my experience! So many of my colleagues have similar success stories thanks to NASA Education. Just ask around.

Students younger than college-age also benefit. I participated in FIRST Robotics in high school, which is partly sponsored by NASA Education. Kindergarteners through postdocs and educators benefit from NASA Education programs. A full list is on the NASA Education website.

Is NASA Education important to you? Contact your elected representatives to tell them why. Ask them to fully fund NASA Education.

Thank you to the Washington Post for covering this important issue and including my perspective regarding the importance of the NASA Education office. “A lot of times the only way women or minorities can actually succeed is through these grants. It's the only way they continue getting funding.” Support NASA Education for the next generation.