Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Constellation vs. NASA's Bold New Space Initiative: Education

Constellation is a single program that offers relatively few ways for students and academic organizations to participate. It is hoped that having a program to return astronauts to the lunar surface will inspire students to be interested in STEM fields as happened during the Sputnik and Apollo eras. However, it's difficult to see how this can happen when the Vision for Space Exploration's approach has been discarded by Constellation, and an "Apollo on Steriods" approach is used instead. An 8 year old third grader in 2005, when ESAS essentially replaced the Vision for Space Exploration, would have to be inspired by a program that may return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2035 or so, when they're 38 years old ... and since there's little commercial participation, international participation, or technology innovation of the sort envisioned in the VSE, at best ESAS will be able to do little more than Apollo did long ago. It's unlikely many students will be inspired by that prospect.

In contrast, the approach used in the 2011 budget encourages STEM and educational participation in a number of ways:

NASA Education - This includes educational activities like the new "Summer of Innovation". The overall budget also includes participatory exploration activities across various programs. Participatory exploration will encourage interest in STEM.

Space Technology - Participation in this portfolio includes academic partnerships. There should be many opportunities for universities and their students to get involved in the diverse efforts to develop improvements for sensors, smallsats, robots, materials science, propulsion, affordable space access, and other space technologies. Prizes, one of the methods used in this category, often include university teams and educational outreach.

Heavy lift and Propulsion research and development - The projects within this category can include academic partnerships, and thus participation by academic researchers and their students.

Critical Technology Demonstrations - The "enabling technology development program" within this portfolio can involve academic partnerships, and thus participation by academic researchers and their students.

Commercial Crew and Cargo - The commercial transportation services may result in lower-cost launch that makes space more accessible to education interests like universities.

Earth and Climate Science - The funding increase for Earth science missions should give opportunities for educational participation and outreach. For example, students should have access to mission science data, and the missions should include an outreach component. It would not be unusual for university researchers and students to supply missions with components like science instruments. The small new Venture class missions should be even more accessible to university researchers and their students.

Planetary Science - As with the Earth science budget, the Planetary science funding increase should give opportunities for educational outreach, student access to science data, and university participation in the missions themselves.

Robotic Precursor Missions - It's probably safe to speculate that the robotic precursor missions will include educational outreach activities, student data access, and university involvement in mission formulation like other NASA robotic missions.

Full Utilization of the ISS - One of the goals for the increased use of the ISS is to make ISS facilities "available to educators and new researchers".

The new NASA budget provides many opportunities to make an "Open NASA" that gives students and universities on-ramps to participate in and learn from NASA work. The best way to inspire students in space isn't to show them they may see astronauts on TV again when they're much older if all goes well, it's to allow them to contribute to real space activities.

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