It's time to beef up support for space science at US universities
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The net result of all this has been a ''depression'' in university space science. NASA encouraged the growth of university research groups in the 1960s with grants to over 40 institutions and supportSkip to next paragraph
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for 37 space science buildings or additions to buildings. It also underwrote education in this field by supporting over 5,300 students with three-year fellowships.
During the 1970s, however, support for facilities - including instrumentation - evaporated. The fellowships ended. All NASA activities were cut back, as shuttle development took top priority in an era of budgetary restraint. But, McDonald notes, ''the universities have probably suffered more than the (NASA) centers.''
In any event, their space research and education capacity has undergone what the study report calls ''a significant and undesirable erosion.'' To remedy this , NASA, is now proposing a modest, but vital, three-part program.
It wants to add $11 million a year for five years to the OSSA budget for instrumentation, including computers ranging from desktop ''micros'' to the highest-capacity units available. In the 1960s, US university scientists had labs that were the envy of the world. Now they envy their European colleagues. The situation is so bad that, in the words of the study, ''extraordinary steps'' are needed to put US university laboratories back ''into the same position as laboratories in other countries. . . .''
To resume support for educating future US space scientists, NASA wants to reinstate its fellowship program, with 50 awards a year - tuition plus a $13,000 living stipend, rising by $1,000 a year to a maximum of $16,000. The program would work up to 200 fellowships a year.
Finally, an unwisely neglected aspect of space science would be strengthened. This is the continuing analysis and study of data already collected and still pouring in from US Earth satellites and space and planetary probes. There are some 15 such vehicles now operating. McDonald says the continuing contribution of these craft is a story that hasn't been sufficiently told or appreciated. In fact, when NASA proposed turning off the Pioneer craft, public reaction was so strong that Congress gave the agency extra money to keep such craft going. But the OSSA budget is still short of funds to enable university investigators to make the most of such data. Thus NASA would add $20 million a year to OSSA's $ 155 million data budget. This would go far toward maximizing the scientific return from the space fleet.
McDonald acknowledges that this program represents a ''Band-Aid'' approach, which would repair the worst damage university science has suffered. But in the long run, he says, NASA and the universities have to find ways to make the most of research opportunities on the shuttle and to put space science education on a permanently sound foundation.
Meanwhile, though, the ''Band-Aid'' program that has been proposed is urgently needed. Both the administration and the Congress should see that it is part of NASA's 1985 budget.