Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Astronomers aboard the SOFIA airborne telescope work with educators during a flight as part of an NASA program.

Astronomers aboard the SOFIA airborne telescope work with educators during a flight as part of an NASA program.

NASA/SOFIA/Nick Veronico

Congress keeps NASA education programs aloft

Since 2011, 55 science teachers from across the United States have flown on a Boeing 747, modified to hold a 2.5-meter telescope, that serves as NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). They have used that experience working alongside scientists—enhanced by additional training before and after their flights—to inform and excite students about the world around them.

Next week is the deadline for teachers to apply to be part of the next cohort of airborne astronomy ambassadors. But the fate of that NASA-funded education program and many others was very much up in the air until this week, when Congress passed a $1 trillion spending bill to fund the federal government through 30 September 2015. The legislation, signed into law on Tuesday, restores funding for what NASA calls education and public outreach (E/PO) programs operated by SOFIA and dozens of other scientific missions. Many educators are relieved, but are also watching closely as the agency reshuffles some of its E/PO programs.

“We had a bumpy ride in 2014,” admits Edna DeVore, an astronomy educator who manages the program for SOFIA, which is based in southern California. DeVore actually works in northern California as deputy CEO for the SETI Institute, which also conducts E/PO for two other NASA science missions: Kepler, a space telescope that is searching for exoplanets, and Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, which is orbiting Mars to study its atmosphere.

A change in plans

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has traditionally funded education activities directly in conjunction with every scientific payload. (There’s also an Office of Education at NASA headquarters that runs agency-wide programs such as scholarships and research opportunities for students and efforts to attract more minority students into space science.) The idea is to yoke those most knowledgeable about the science with those skilled in public dissemination.

In April 2013, however, NASA announced it wanted to sever those ties as part of the Obama administration’s proposed reorganization of all federal science education activities. The $42 million allocated for E/PO within the science directorate would have disappeared in fiscal year 2014. Congress rejected the idea (as well as much of the White House’s overall reorganization plan) and eventually restored the NASA funding. But the money was slow to trickle out to the individual projects, and some suffered actual cuts.

“We kept going, but the process of selecting the 2014 cohort was delayed by 5 to 6 months,” DeVore says about the teachers who were trained to fly aboard SOFIA. The E/PO component for Kepler received only 20% of its previous year’s allocation, she adds, leading to reductions in both programming and staff.

This year the administration again lowballed funding for the activity, asking for only $15 million in its 2015 request for NASA. The final bill signed into law this week again restores the budget to pre-2014 levels. But even that amount is “well below” the 1% that NASA’s $5.1 billion science directorate is authorized to spend on education activities, notes a report from Senate appropriators this summer that accompanied a 2015 NASA spending bill that was folded into the final accord.

“I’m very encouraged that Congress elected to put the funding back into SMD for E/PO,” DeVore says. “The real strength of having education specialists embedded is that they can suggest to the scientists and engineers the best way to translate for the public what they are doing.”

Getting the public to understand those activities is essential to the country’s well-being, believes Leland Melvin, a former astronaut who stepped down earlier this year as head of NASA’s education office. “If we want to sustain our society, we need to make sure that we get kids excited about exploring the universe,” says Melvin, now a consultant and motivational speaker based in Lynchburg, Virginia. “And the best way to do that is through education and public outreach to share what NASA missions are discovering about our world.”

NASA shuffles the education deck

Kathryn Flanagan, deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, says that the U.S. space science education community breathed a “huge sigh of relief” when Congress reasserted the mission directorate’s key role in education. (The institute manages the Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, and its education activities have their own website.) But more challenges await.

Last month, NASA announced it would soon be requesting “team-based proposals for SMD science education” as part of a reshuffling of how the directorate will manage those programs. The preliminary notice says that NASA “intends to select one or more” teams to be the primary contractors. The competition gives organizations like STScI the chance to run education programs for several different NASA science missions while retaining the ties between educators and scientists.

“It’s an interesting proposition,” says Flanagan, an x-ray astronomer with extensive experience as an educator. “It’s an opportunity to break the mission stovepiping of science content.” NASA’s four great space observatories—Hubble, the Chandra x-ray telescope, the Spitzer infrared telescope, and the now-defunct Compton gamma ray telescope—have some common themes, she believes, and educators would love to use content from each of them to enhance their activities. NASA would also benefit, she says, from the infrastructure and networks that already exist at organizations now performing E/PO duties for the directorate.

DeVore is hoping that NASA will choose several institutions “and then ask them to work together” in applying what they have learned. In her case, that means drawing upon more than 2 decades of work in the field.

She began doing NASA E/PO in the early 1990s for SOFIA’s predecessor, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, now grounded. “I’m an educator,” DeVore says. “So I’m always looking for opportunities to take what NASA has learned and share it with teachers, students, and the public.” For example, what Kepler scientists are learning about potentially habitable planets, she says, can be easily turned it into a lesson that’s aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, a state-led, voluntary effort to improve science instruction in elementary and secondary schools across the country.

In the meantime, teachers interested in riding aboard SOFIA have until Monday to submit an application. Those selected will need to complete an online graduate astronomy course before participating in two overnight flights. The program pays for all of their training, as well as the salary of a substitute back home while they’re away. The cost to the government is only $7000 per participant, DeVore notes—a very down-to-earth price for a chance to do science in the skies.

To see all of our stories on the 2015 budget, click here.