Major changes lie ahead for NASA education programs, but no one knows what those changes will be. The education community is being left in the dark, due to the lack of communications from NASA Headquarters. Even NASA insiders are beginning to express frustration. The head of NASA’s Space Math program recently sent the following message to the firstname.lastname@example.org mailing list:
As you may know, NASA has dramatically changed how it funds its education programs during this fiscal year and perhaps beyond. To avoid creating misinformation, NASA has largely decided to keep its detailed plans under wraps even to its many education partners, including its own mission education programs. We are all largely trying to maintain our programs as best we can given that money for continued education work, meetings, workshops and product development has mostly been eliminated during this academic year. Many programs are making ends meet by using last-years money frugally. That means some programs may still be able to support education work through the early part of 2014. 2014 will be a transition year for NASA’s science mission education efforts as you have come to know it, with dramatic changes in how or if you will receive classroom resources from the missions, participate in workshops etc.
Last year, the Obama Administration proposed a sweeping change in NASA education programs, which called for most education efforts to be transferred to other agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Smithsonian Institution, with drastically decreased funding for education at NASA. ($94.2 million proposed for Fiscal Year 2014, spending, down from $136.1 million in FY2012 and $136.9 million estimated in FY2013.) The funding for NASA education programs was not transferred over, however, leading many to wonder if space education programs would simply disappear.
Congress has opposed the transfer of NASA education programs to other agencies. During the Fiscal Year 2014 budget process, it finally settled on a figure of $116.6 million for NASA education: a cut of about $20 million, rather than $42 million, as originally proposed. This represents a 15% cut, rather than the 31% cut proposed by the Administration.
Still, 15% represents a significant cut, given that NASA education is already down sharply from its high of $169.2 billion in FY2009. This represents a total drop of 31% in the last five years.
Since all offices have certain irreducible overhead, the effect on NASA education programs will be even greater than what the numbers indicate. NASA leadership will have to formulate a new plan for how to deal with these cuts. The planning process will no doubt be complicated by the recently announced retirement of NASA Associate Administrator for Education Leland Melvin.
In the meantime, communication is virtually nonexistent and the education community remains in the dark about what to expect.