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Cutting NASA’s education funding will hurt workforce, senators argue in open letter

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They’re urging Senate appropriators not to eliminate NASA’s Office of Education

Leland Melvin, former astronaut and former associate administrator for education at NASA, talks to students at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Photo: NASA

A group of senators have an important message for the people who help decide NASA’s budget: don’t cut the space agency’s education funding. In an open letter released today, 32 senators led by Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) are calling on members of the Senate Appropriations Committee to keep NASA’s Office of Education intact. That contradicts what President Donald Trump requested in his budget for fiscal year 2018.

Overall, Trump’s budget request didn’t slash too much money from NASA’s annual funding, but it did call for the cancellation of some Earth science missions, as well as the complete elimination of NASA’s Office of Education. The reasoning had to do with the office’s strategy and performance, according to the request: “The Office of Education has experienced significant challenges in implementing a NASA-wide education strategy and is performing functions that are duplicative of other parts of the agency.” The request also noted that duties of the office should be taken over by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate instead.

That’s what the 32 senators are trying to fight. “Given the importance of STEM education and the success of Hidden Figures, which was recently celebrated by high-ranking members of the Trump Administration at a screening at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, we were disappointed by President Trump’s budget proposal to eliminate funding for NASA’s Office of Education in FY18,” they wrote in today’s letter.

The Office of Education, which received $115 million in 2016, is primarily responsible for NASA’s educational outreach programs. It runs the National Space Grant and Fellowship Program, which gives money to students to help them prepare for jobs in aerospace, as well as the Minority University Research and Education Programs, which gives financial aid to minority colleges and institutions.

These and other programs are crucial and in need of saving, the senators say. “We recognize that you face significant budget constraints, but we urge you to support the NASA Office of Education because its mission is critical to boosting the nation’s workforce competitiveness,” they wrote. “This funding helps the nation make strides towards equipping students with the skills needed to enter the growing STEM workforce.”

Leland Melvin, NASA’s former associate administrator of education and a former astronaut, voiced his support for the letter as well, saying NASA’s education programs are what helped him move ahead in his career. “A skinny black kid from a small southern town, who never imagined working in the space industry, was given an opportunity to do so because of NASA Education,” said Melvin. “The experiences, activities, and inspiration that NASA Education provides to students, teachers, and the community can't be duplicated by any other organization.”

Ultimately, NASA’s final budget for fiscal year 2018 won’t be decided until later this year. Appropriators from the Senate will come up with their own budget proposal for NASA, while appropriators from the House will do the same. A final, compromised bill incorporating both the House and Senate proposals will then be voted on by Congress, before it’s signed into law by the president.