If NASA is at a loss for college graduates to fill its ranks, it's not for lack of trying.
Its K-12 programs receive top grades from many observers, and at the college level, the agency has built an impressive web of scholarships, internships, and competitions to attract promising students.
But it's difficult to get an answer to the bottom-line question: How effective have these efforts been in staving off NASA's workforce crunch?
NASA is preparing to track the number of recruits it or its contractors gain through educational ties and funding, but it currently lacks such information.
Partly that's because, in the 1990s, NASA was firing, not hiring. And the agency saw itself as "putting money into the national pot with the idea that everyone would benefit from these programs," says Spence Armstrong, a former Air Force general who left NASA in December after three years in charge of university programs for the agency. "We weren't putting a service obligation on it [a grant or fellowship award], though we talked about it a lot."
NASA commissioned an outside panel to review its research programs last summer, which reported that "graduate and postdoctoral students are constrained from participating in NASA research by unpredictable flight opportunities with intervals often exceeding students' time in training," The panel recommended more shuttle flights to aid research, steadier funding, and more attention paid to university space-research programs.
"NASA is doing a great job focusing on K-12.... But then there's a disconnect, a lack of cohesiveness ... when it comes to NASA's higher-education programs," says Kenneth Baldwin, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of California at Irvine and a member of the NASA Advisory Council.
It is still too soon to say how recommendations might change in the wake of the Columbia investigation. But under NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, education has been upgraded to a new level of prominence. He has called for programs scattered across the agency to be gathered under "one umbrella," says Adena Loston, associate administrator for education.
"We're reviewing all of the programs and how we're allocating the dollars," she says. "But the problem with the [shortage of skilled people in the] workforce, it is not a NASA problem, this is a universal problem," she adds.
NASA's education website boasts dozens of higher- education efforts, including the likes of the decade-old Space Grant College & Fellowship Program and the nine-year-old Great Moonbuggy Race, in which school engineering teams compete by bouncing their human-powered designs in a race over rough, moonlike terrain.
There are also several new NASA initiatives that may encourage graduate students to continue careers "at NASA instead of [going to] some dot.com like they did in the 1990s," says Daniel Baker, a professor of astrophysical and planetary science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
One unique program he'd like to see replicated began after NASA decided to explore the icy reaches of Pluto with its New Horizons spacecraft. With the mission scheduled for 2006, Dr. Baker belatedly pitched the idea of including a student-built instrument on board.
To Baker's surprise, NASA eventually approved inclusion of the instrument - called the "Student Dust Counter" or SDC - to help fulfill its educational mandate.
For this tidbit of extra effort and an $850,000 price tag, Baker says NASA is in a position to reap a rich reward of human capital - dozens of students with a close knowledge of a major NASA project who could easily migrate to NASA if a door were opened.
One of them is Gene Holland, who has had his sights set on NASA since his junior year of high school. He came to Boulder as a grad student partly because the school has sent more than a dozen alumni to NASA's astronaut program.
He is currently the student manager for the SDC project and says he feels the intense pressure of being a pioneer, worrying that if the instrument doesn't work, it will harm other students' chances to do similar real-world, deep-space research.
A whole range of students are getting hands-on experience through the project. Electrical and mechanical engineers are in the second phase of design; a business major is soon to be tracking expenses and eventually, years after its launch, computer- science students and astronomy majors will use data the instrument sends back.
"What our little project shows," Baker says, "is that if NASA really wants to get students to go all the way through and join up with NASA, they will have to offer many more of these tiny hands-on experiments with small satellites, rockets, and balloons. They can't make research just a once in a lifetime chance."
Mr. Holland is hopeful, though not sanguine about his chances. "I think everyone wants to work for NASA," he says. "That's a dream of mine. I'm going to give it a try."
NASA's Space Grant program funds research, education, and public service projects in all 50 states. Since it began in 1989, the program has awarded nearly 20,000 scholarships and fellowships.
In 2001-02, the Space Grant program has:
• awarded $9.1 million to 1,742 undergraduate students and 522 graduate students.
• contributed $27 million to research projects.
• attracted $52.2 million in matching funds from state and local sources.