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Trump wants to kill NASA office popular with Congress, astronauts and kids

Leland Melvin talks about his experiences as an astronaut with D.C. public school students in 2011. (Carla Cioffi/NASA)

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.

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“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.”

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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 NASA-wide 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 agencywide 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.

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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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