On Friday, NASA issued an internal memo suspending all education and public outreach activities, pending budget review.

Effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.

The only exceptions are certain press activities: mission announcements, breaking news, and replies to media inquiries. Update: NASA Assocation Administrator for Education Leland Melvin sent out a followup memo on Friday, which exempts certain activities from the suspension. Exempted activities are:

  • Digital Learning Network activities currently scheduled
  • FIRST Robotics
  • Flight Projects (specifically ARISS, EarthKAM, Education downlinks, Zero Robotics)
  • Great Moonbuggy Race
  • Lunabotics Competition
  • Microgravity University activities currently scheduled
  • NASA Educational Technology Services (NETS)
  • NASA Internships. Fellowships, and Scholarships
  • NASA Museum Alliance
  • Science Engineering Mathematics Aerospace Academy (SEMAA)
  • Student Launch Initative and Undergraduate Student Launch Initiative
  • Summer of Innovation

The suspension is a reaction to budget sequestration, which will reduce NASA’s FY2013 education budget from $137 million to $130 million. Quite a few blogs are panicking about this today, so it is important to note that the suspension is temporary while NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver and Associate Administrator for Education Leland Melvin review their budgets to determine which activities should be cut and which are “mission critical” and should be allowed to continue.

That having been said, the effect on some education programs will be more significant than the $7 million cut might indicate. The Federal fiscal year begins in October, so Fiscal Year 2013 is nearly half over. That means about half of NASA’s $137 million education budget has already been spent. So, the $7 million cut comes out of $68.5 million or so that has not yet been spent.

Moreover, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has stated that NASA, unlike other agencies, will not layoff or furlough any employees. Personnel are NASA’s largest budget expense; protecting employees from the effects of sequestration drastically reduces the amount of money available for other expenses. (Although, Bolden’s statement may be less significant than it appears at first glance. Most of NASA workers are not technically “employees” but “contractors,” and NASA has not officially stated that they will receive the same protection as civil servants.)

While we can’t predict the exact outcome of the budget review, it seems likely that NASA grants and funding for outside organizations will be drastically reduced, if not eliminated entirely, for the remainder of the year. It will be hard for NASA to continue or resume such programs in the future if the agency continues to protect personnel and the education budget declines as expected.

Unfortunately, in the short term, the suspension of activities doesn’t save NASA much money. In the absence of furloughs or layoffs, personnel will still show up for work every day and collect paychecks, even if they’ve been told not to do any work. The only real savings are a few office supplies.

As NASA funding declines, other sources may step forward. The Uqingu Fund, founded by former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science Alan Stern, is attempting to fill some of the gaps created by the shutdown. Uwingu does not expect that it will be able to raise enough money to replace all of the NASA education and public-outreach funding, at least in the short term, but does hope to continue some of the more important activities.

Budget pressures could force NASA to find more innovative and cost-effective approaches to educational activities. If that happens, the current pain could turn out to be a long-term blessing. For example, NASA could take advantage of the new low-cost suborbital vehicles currently being developed in the private sector to fly large numbers of student payloads. This type of innovation would require some clear thinking and courage on the part of NASA leadership, however. It remains to be seen whether that will happen.

Written by Astro1 on March 25th, 2013 , Education

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    Mohammad Shafiq Khan commented

    Funds should flow smoothly to NASA, CERN etc. Nobody is bothered about Truth of physical sciences. CERN scientists are befooling themselves and ignorant people. If Higgs Boson is a God particle arising from Big Bang 13.7 billions years ago then the rational question arises whether God can exist under Big Bang paradigm. Rationally God cannot exist under Big Bang paradigm because for any existence including God; substance is a pre-requisite and substance will occupy space. At the time of Big Bang there is no space for God to exist and what comes out of Big Bang is space, time, matter & light/radiation. Now there is no space for God to exist before Big Bang so he cannot exist afterwards. We know matter is made up of protons, neutrons & electrons and as such God cannot be in the matter also, He cannot be in time as time has also started at the time of Big Bang. Since we know what is light/radiation and we are in a position to produce light/radiation; hence God cannot be in the light/radiation also. Then where is God.
    CERN scientists are deceiving the ignorant fund providers by giving them the notion that they have found the God particle whereas they are working under a paradigm of physics under which God cannot exist.
    CERN scientists are making absolutely baseless & irrational claims to justify their jobs & wastage of public money in the name of scientific research and they are ignoring my open challenge to save their jobs & degrees. Open challenge could be seen at http://www.worldsci.org/php/index.php?tab0=Abstracts&tab1=Display&id=6476&tab=2
    Physicists & philosophers of the world act as mute spectators.

    March 26, 2013 at 5:32 am
    Julia Steed Mawson commented

    While I understand that everyone needs to be budget conscious, and I realize that NASA administrators must do this because of sequestration, this sort of news is disturbing.
    Currently employers are saying that they need a STEM literate workforce. However, virtually no science is being taught in the elementary grades, very little in the middle school arena and at least in our state, only two years mandated in HS. Teachers and youth mentors indicate that they lack resources and knowledge to “do STEM”. Further, a good democracy requires people who are well educated, well fed, and healthy … and that means educated in the sciences as well as other disciplines. Public education programming through agencies such as NASA is an essential component of the development of a STEM literate society – who from youth through adults can support a STEM based workforce. Cutting these kinds of programming is just one more blow to the middle class …

    March 28, 2013 at 6:50 am