Roles of Academia and of Nontraditional Approaches
Most analysis of scientific data returned from NASA missions is performed by university faculty members working with students and more senior associates, all under NASA sponsorship. University faculty members and graduate students also do fundamental research in engineering sciences that leads to new technologies and new tools for space systems. Academics are often the ones to undertake the advanced development of scientific instruments and spacecraft systems technologies for future space missions.
The research component of the university endeavor is only part of the contribution from the academic sector, which also has a primary role in educating and supplying the workforce for NASA and industry. Thus the academic sector plays a large role in supplying new scientists, engineers, and support staff to conceive, develop, and conduct the research studies in NASA’s science and technology programs.
At its January 2006 workshop and subsequent meetings, the committee heard from a number of faculty members and administrators from major university science and engineering schools regarding what factors contribute to either attracting or discouraging students from concentrations in space science and engineering. The most commonly cited factor, and possibly the factor that appears to have the greatest positive impact, relates to giving students opportunities for hands-on experience. The impact of hands-on experience can begin with undergraduate research opportunities, and such experience plays an important role as students decide on areas of graduate study concentration and career directions. Many university representatives noted the impact of giving students opportunities to participate in spaceflight missions, especially small university-led missions such as Explorers and suborbital flight research using aircraft, high-altitude balloons, and sounding rockets. In these programs students can get firsthand exposure to space project technology development, mission design and development, and science data analysis. They gain an end-to-end view of the development of a space project. Through these and other means, universities contribute to initial training and continued on-the-job training for space program professionals. As Chapter 4 notes, recent opportunities for the types of space projects most valuable for student training have been infrequent and, particularly in the case of the suborbital program, threatened with further reductions.
A second important factor in attracting students involves opportunities to participate in what they perceive as important endeavors. According to the committee’s interviews and panel discussions, students need to believe that what they are doing will contribute to compelling (even transformational) scientific or engineering research and/or contribute to an important national goal such as space exploration. The goals need to be viewed as real and stable and as having the potential to contribute to important advances in a meritorious field. Other factors cited by the university representatives as being important in encouraging student interest included having positive personal interactions with faculty and receiving high-quality science instruction before entering college.
University representatives also cited a number of factors that they viewed as disincentives for students planning their career directions. Notable on that list were evidence of program instability or waning support (e.g., due to cuts in support for research on campus or reports of declining job opportunities), lack of opportunities for hands-on experiences in the area, and noncompetitive fellowship stipends. Other factors that tend to discourage student interest include negative interactions with faculty, poor science training in the primary education system, and perceptions about whether a field is “cool” or whether the academic workload is particularly difficult.
Although universities are training grounds for future NASA scientists and engineers, NASA’s workforce competencies do not map directly to academic disciplines. Some competencies, such as software engineering and aerodynamics, match established university programs. The workforce pipeline can be monitored by watching the input and output of these programs, although the flow of new entrants to the workforce in these disciplines will be considerably affected by employment opportunities in industry or other sectors of the government. Other competencies are subfields within academic disciplines, or may appear in multidisciplinary university laboratories. Extravehicular activity (EVA) systems projects, for instance, may be located administratively in an aerospace engineering department, but the disciplines involved in developing EVA systems include mechanical and electrical engineering, robotics, human factors, and other specialties. Funding for research projects in these areas comes almost exclusively from NASA, and therefore NASA can affect, in both the positive and negative sense, the pipeline and the specific skills of graduates of these programs and the university workforce needed for continued basic research in the future. Still other competencies, such as project management, can be taught in theory in a formal graduate educational setting but require on-the-job experience to master.
EDUCATION OF POTENTIAL EMPLOYEES
Academia educates potential workforce employees at several levels. These are discussed below.
Entry-level “Fresh Outs”
More than 2,700 engineering programs in the country are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).1 Accreditation standards are developed by ABET in collaboration with professional societies to set standards for what students should know and be able to do at the completion of their bachelor’s degree. According to the standards, students must understand and be able to apply mathematics, science, and engineering; be able to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems; work in teams; communicate effectively; understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context; and understand the professional and ethical responsibilities of an engineer.
Undergraduate students are being educated broadly within their disciplines, not trained for a specific segment of industry. However, NASA, by making project opportunities available at the university for undergraduate students, can encourage engineering departments to focus the design experiences of its students on problems of interest to NASA, and thereby to develop skills needed in its workforce pipeline. National design competitions, student rocket and balloon projects, individual scholarships and fellowships, and research grants that encourage participation of undergraduates are all possible strategies to attract student interest in NASA-related areas.
One particularly effective approach to recruiting undergraduates and accelerating their training is through cooperative education programs. In 2006 there were approximately 230 NASA co-op students who were drawn from about 130 colleges and universities. All NASA centers administer their own co-op student programs, with the largest number of students being at Johnson, Goddard, Langley, and Marshall. Half the centers support both undergraduates and graduate students in their programs. Until very recently, the co-op program was supported by center general and administrative (overhead) funds, but with the transition to full-cost management in the agency, some center co-op program administrators reported to the committee that program managers are showing reluctance to release scarce program funds to support co-op students.
NASA might consider strategically focusing resources on a few selected undergraduate programs to establish pipelines of bachelor-level engineers who have the experience and skills needed to become new workforce entrants. Emphasis on hands-on opportunities in first- and second-year engineering will be important, both in recruiting students and in preparing them well. NASA will benefit in future years by increasing its support for activities at the college level that increase interest in space-related projects.
The First Professional Degree
According to Educating the Engineer of 2020: Adapting Engineering Education to the New Century, the engineering bachelor’s degree should be considered to be a “pre-engineering” or “engineer in training” degree.2 The report recommends that the master of science (M.S.) degree be recognized as the first professional engineering degree and that institutions should encourage students to obtain M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. Many of the skills implied by the NASA “competencies” list (see Appendix C) are either not taught or not taught in depth in most undergraduate programs. NASA will need a workforce development program that provides opportunities for engineers to further their education formally in universities or with in-house programs or else institute policies of hiring entry-level engineers at the M.S. level.
While undergraduates are educated broadly within their disciplines, master’s and Ph.D. education is generally more narrowly focused on specific subfields and skills. NASA and the aerospace industry can influence the content of graduate education programs in areas relevant to its mission by outsourcing basic research to universities. University faculty members are first-line recruiters for their graduate programs. The extent to which the pipeline of M.S. and Ph.D. scientists and engineers is filled with students who are enthusiastic about the Vision for Space Exploration will be influenced by their involvement with NASA-related research during their graduate education.
The pipeline of master’s and Ph.D. engineers reflects the decisions of students and institutions, influenced by the availability of financial support and by the labor market for engineers with advanced degrees. Unlike practitioners of medicine and law, engineers can enter the workforce with only a B.S. degree. The difference in the expected lifetime earnings of a B.S.-level engineer versus an engineer with an advanced degree is not sufficient to entice students to incur massive debts in student loans required to obtain further education. NASA and the aerospace industry can affect the pipeline of M.S. and Ph.D. engineers by the decisions they make on funding for graduate student support at universities, and on the value they place on advanced-degree holders in the workforce. The committee believes that it would be of great value to NASA’s workforce development to augment support available to technology graduate students through the Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP) (see Box 5.1).
NASA’s Graduate Student Researchers Program targets individuals most likely to enter the NASA science and technology workforce. GSRP awards fellowships to students enrolled in master’s or Ph.D. programs who propose research projects that are directly related to NASA problems. GSRP recipients work with faculty advisors at their home university as well as with NASA mentors at the various centers, acquiring skills that are important for the NASA workforce. Mentoring by NASA scientists and engineers and internships at NASA centers help to develop a cadre of potential master’s and Ph.D.-level workers for the aerospace ecosystem, in general, and for NASA in particular. GSRP recipients also serve as a link between NASA and university faculty, a pool of potential “on-demand” experts who can be tapped as needed. Since the GSRP award, $30,000, is not adequate to fully support tuition and a stipend for a student, GSRP students may in some cases also be partially supported by NASA research grants. Both GSRP and university research grants are crucial in developing the future NASA workforce.
Some students pursue advanced degrees with the expectation of a significant financial return on their investment in one to several additional years of education. Others are motivated by the expectation of more varied and interesting opportunities throughout their careers. Institutions can encourage students to pursue graduate degrees but can succeed in doing so only if students’ expectations are met after graduation. NASA and the aerospace industry can attract students to master’s and Ph.D. programs by providing fellowships and funded research projects and,
NASA’s Graduate Student Fellowship Programs
NASA’s Office of Education lists four main goals for the agency: inspire, engage, educate, and employ. At the graduate student level NASA’s education goals shift from inspiring and engaging prospective students to educating and employing them. This is meant to lead to a growth in the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce. Two programs—the Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP) and the Earth System Science (ESS) Graduate Student Fellowships—provide graduate students with funding, mentoring, and practical research experience. The Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) is designed to actively engage underrepresented and underserved minorities in NASA’s activities, eventually leading to their employment in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics discipline.
GSRP fellowships are offered to graduate students who intend to attain a master’s or doctorate in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics discipline. NASA lists 21 science fields, ranging from aerospace engineering to psychology, in which research can be pursued. In FY 1998 the program granted awards to 387 students, but the number of awards has gradually dropped, and in FY 2005 only 295 awards were granted. A GSRP slot is valued at $30,000 and awarded for 1 year; the award is renewable for up to 3 years. For comparison, graduate fellowship funding can reach $35,000 at NIH, $37,000 at EPA, $40,500 at NSF, $42,200 to $52,200 at DOE, and $55,000 at DOD. The committee notes that from a competitive standpoint, NASA is at a disadvantage compared to these other government agencies.
The $30,000 GSRP fellowship total includes a $21,000 student stipend, a student allowance of $5,000, and a $4,000 university allowance. None of these funds may be used to purchase equipment. The awardees have historically been 81 percent white and 66 percent male. Of the former participants reporting about their activities after the GSRP program, 11 percent were employed within NASA, and 40 percent were employed in aerospace-related jobs.
The ESS fellowship program has the same funding structure as the more general GSRP but focuses only on Earth system science topics, including climate variability and change, atmospheric composition, the carbon cycle and ecosystems, water and energy cycles, weather, and Earth’s surface and interior. In FY 2006 177 slots were available in the ESS fellowship program, 21 more than in FY 1999 but 18 fewer than in FY 1994.
The MUREP includes multiple programs for various education levels. The Harriet G. Jenkins Fellowship Program (JPFP) provides funding for 3 years at GSRP levels to underrepresented graduate students, including women, minorities, and persons with disabilities, seeking a master’s or a doctoral degree in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics field. The fellowships also provide 6 weeks of research experience at a NASA center. The program supported 50 students in FY 2006, including 10 seeking a master’s degree and 40 seeking a doctorate. Of the 107 students who participated in the JPFP during its first 5 years, 10 have already received a Ph.D. For FY 2005, 47 percent of participants studied engineering as a research discipline; 22 percent, astronomy or physics; 12 percent, biology; 11 percent, computer science; 5 percent, mathematics; and 4 percent, chemistry. Four former participants are employed at NASA, six are employed in the aerospace industry, and five are in higher education.
more importantly, ensuring that exciting career opportunities are available upon graduation. The VSE is particularly compelling to those who believe they can participate in it.
INNOVATIVE APPROACHES TO TRAINING POTENTIAL WORKERS
In this report so far, the committee has identified traditional approaches to developing a workforce. However, the committee also notes that the aerospace world is changing significantly and that, compared to even only a decade ago, there are many new and interesting approaches to expanding the available workforce.
Declining support for sounding rockets and high-altitude balloon programs is being matched by an overall trend toward declining support for activities focused on providing flight system and program management experience for students and entry-level employees.
The committee believes that training students to build satellites, gain hands-on experience with the unique demands of satellite and spacecraft systems, and acquire early knowledge of systems engineering techniques is an important resource for NASA. NASA needs to play a role in training the potential workforce in the skills that are essential and/or unique to the work the agency conducts. Sounding rocket and high altitude balloon programs can be an important way to get hands-on development and management experience for students and recent graduates; however, they are by no means the only way to accomplish this important training function. Indeed, by following the examples set by other agencies and other nations, NASA can have the best of both worlds—training the next generation of NASA leaders and innovators while also getting technologies and systems that will be useful in the short-term.
Many universities around the world have endeavored to take on nano-satellite projects, often called “cubesats”3 (see Figure 5.1), that typically begin with the development of small spacecraft having no advanced sensors or large power demands. Once both the students and the university laboratories in which they work have become experienced in the field, they can then begin to develop impressive technologies at costs equal to or often dramatically lower than those for commercial products. A primary example of this phenomenon is Surrey Satellite Technologies,
“Cubesats” are satellites that are 10 centimeters on a side, use commercial components, can carry one or two instruments, and can be made for $65,000 to $80,000 per satellite. See, for instance, www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/050928_cubesats.html.
an enterprise started at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, which is currently a world leader in providing low-cost, robust, and proven satellite development and manufacturing. By providing mentorship and launch opportunities and thus encouraging the growth of similar programs in U.S. universities, NASA could enhance U.S. capacity in a field in which the United States has been surpassed by others, and could simultaneously educate and train a crop of students with the experience to be tremendous assets to the nation and specifically to NASA.
NASA also can emulate an inexpensive and effective method used successfully by the Department of Defense. The “Grand Challenge” prize, a $2 million cash prize offered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), targeted university and amateur teams capable of developing autonomous vehicles (see Figures 5.2 and 5.3). The competition attracted entries from many of the country’s leading universities, most of which partnered with leading industrial companies that provided cash to and mentored the competing students. In the end, DARPA’s Grand Challenges program produced four winning teams and more than $170 million in investment over 2 years of competition. NASA could use its own Centennial Challenges prize program to achieve similar results, both financial and educational, by increasing the emphasis on this program beyond its current $9.7 million budget.
Previous prizes, ranging from the privately funded Ansari X PRIZE to the Department of Defense’s Grand Challenges, have shown a consistent ability to motivate a wide variety of individuals, many of them entry-level, to explore new solutions to longstanding problems and to conduct entire missions on extremely low budgets.
NASA can also accomplish multiple goals by providing support to the emerging sector of new, small rocket companies often referred to as the “entrepreneurial space” or “alt-space” (or “new space”) community. Although these companies often cannot compete with traditional aerospace companies in terms of entry-level salaries, they can promise new employees opportunities for innovation, responsibility, and a high degree of engagement. They can also offer superb value to NASA in some cases. For example, it has been reported that the SpaceShipOne suborbital manned spacecraft program (see Figure 5.4), accomplished by a company of ~100 employees, spent significantly less than the hundreds of millions of dollars estimated by standard cost models for the project if conducted by NASA or the traditional aerospace sector. By furthering its support of such entrepreneurial companies, NASA can simultaneously achieve value, increase the diversity of the marketplace, and encourage the education and training of entry-level employees.
A PARTNER IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING RESEARCH
Most scientific research in the disciplines relevant to space exploration technologies and systems, including astronomy and astrophysics, planetary (and lunar) science, solar and space physics, Earth sciences, life and biomedical sciences, and microgravity physical sciences, is carried out in university laboratories. Other institutions—NASA and other federal laboratories, not-for-profit organizations, and industry laboratories—certainly play significant roles, but the universities are the predominant performers in the United States.4 The scientific activities involve all phases of the research process, including advanced technology development, definition of mission concepts and long-term planning, flight instrument development, flight mission science operations, and data analysis and interpretation. Based on NASA’s current plans to support human exploration of space and at the same time continue a broad and balanced program of scientific research, the committee expects that U.S. universities will
need to be able to sustain a high level of teaching and research expertise across all of the disciplines mentioned above and be able to support the full range of activities comprised by the research process.
The Vision for Space Exploration will require considerable investment in basic engineering sciences, particularly in fluid flow (not understood for microgravity environments), combustion, formal methods for software verification, protection from space radiation, and many other areas. Some of this work is needed in a short timeframe, and that work will probably be undertaken most effectively at NASA laboratories. But the VSE will require continued effort to develop systems that can function in the challenging environment of space. Research in these areas naturally falls into the category of investigation that is effectively carried out in university laboratories with the support of NASA programs.5
ACADEMIA AS A SOURCE OF EXPERT ADVICE FOR THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AND INDUSTRY
Since its establishment, NASA’s support of academic research and teaching has been reciprocated by academia’s contribution of expert advice in formulating mission plans, planning mission architecture, developing innovative instrumentation and spacecraft systems, and so on. Academic engineers offer a breadth of experience and lessons learned across many industries to bear on problems vital to the success of the VSE, and they can provide NASA independent guidance on what issues to examine and how to look at them. The availability of “on-demand” expertise through the academic sector increases NASA’s capabilities in ways that would be extremely costly if NASA were to attempt to sustain in-house expertise in all conceivable specialties. The aerospace industry
also benefits from such advice. Continued support of the research expertise of the university sector can thus be viewed as of economic and technical value to NASA.
But the continued existence of university expertise in areas unique to NASA’s missions will not be assured without investment of resources. University departments are often thought of as rigid, but they do change on multi-year time scales. In allocating “hunting licenses” for faculty renewal, university administrators typically ask about the intellectual importance of the field in which recruitment is proposed, and they consider prospects for future funding. They seek to appoint in areas at the cutting edge of knowledge and to assure themselves that the area will remain relevant over the multi-decade career of a typical faculty appointee. Long-term commitments of this sort are jeopardized if the area of research is not seen as one that will remain relevant and garner continued extramural support. Not only faculty selection is affected by changing NASA support for research: even in the selection of applicants for graduate education, universities seek assurance that a faculty advisor can make a 5- to 7-year commitment of financial support to a new Ph.D. student.
NASA needs to be particularly careful to nurture and sustain research areas of importance to the agency’s mission and to recognize that frequently or abruptly changing goals and funding priorities may adversely affect the university partners on which NASA relies for many services.6
Finding 5: NASA relies on a highly trained technical workforce to achieve its goals and has long accepted a responsibility for supporting the training of those who are potential employees. In recent years, however, training for students has been less well supported by NASA. A robust and stable commitment to creating opportunities at the university level for experience in hands-on flight mission development, graduate research fellowships for science and engineering students, and research is essential for recruiting and developing the long-term supply of competent workers necessary to implement NASA’s future programs.
Faculty research not only is fundamental to student training but also leads to the development of new technology and tools for future applications in space. Programs supporting critical scientific and technological expertise are highly desirable.
Hands-on experience for students is provided by suborbital programs, Explorer and other small spacecraft missions, and design competitions, all of which rely on continuing NASA support.
The Graduate Student Researchers Program supports the education and training of prospective NASA employees and deserves augmented support.
Undergraduate and graduate co-op student programs are particularly effective in giving students early hands-on experience and in exposing students and NASA to each other to help enable sound career choices and hiring decisions.
Recommendation 5: Support university programs and provide hands-on opportunities at the college level.
The committee recommends that NASA make workforce-related programs such as the Graduate Student Researchers Program and co-op programs a high priority within its education budget. NASA should also invest in the future workforce by partnering with universities to provide hands-on experiences for students and opportunities for fundamental scientific and engineering research specific to NASA’s needs. These experiences should include significant numbers of opportunities to participate in all aspects of suborbital and Explorer-class flight programs and in research fellowships and co-op student assignments.
Finding 6: Although NASA’s primary role is not education or outreach, improved support of the higher-education community and of young professionals is critical to maintaining a sufficiently talented workforce. Involvement in providing development and educational opportunities, especially hands-on flight and vehicle development opportunities, will pay future dividends not only by encouraging larger numbers of talented students to enter the field, but also by improving the abilities of incoming employees. Indeed, a failure to invest in today’s students
and young professionals will ultimately lead to a crisis when that generation is expected to assume the mantle of leadership within the U.S. aerospace community.
Recommendation 6: Support involvement in suborbital programs and nontraditional approaches to developing skills.
The committee recommends that NASA increase its investment in proven programs such as sounding rocket launches, aircraft-based research, and high-altitude balloon campaigns, which provide ample opportunities for hands-on flight development experience at a relatively low cost of failure.
Rather than viewing sounding rockets, aircraft-based research, and balloon programs simply as low-cost, competed, scientific missions, NASA should also recognize as an equal factor in the criteria for their selection their ability to provide valuable hands-on experience for its younger workers and should investigate the possibility of funding such programs through its education budget.
In addition, NASA should take advantage of nontraditional institutions and approaches both to inspire and to train potential future employees. Investment in programs such as Centennial Challenge prizes and other innovative methods has the potential to pay benefits many times greater than their cost, by simultaneously increasing NASA’s public visibility, training a new generation of workers, and pushing the technology envelope.