NASA and ASEE's 40-Year Friendship

ASEE has placed thousands of educators and reasearchers in summer programs with the space agency, including a future inhabitant of the International Space Station.

By Kenneth T. Walsh

Jim Voss Astronaut Jim Voss has enjoyed many memorable moments in his career, including three space flights and one space walk. But he recalls with special fondness a decidedly earthbound experience in the summer of 1980, when he participated in the NASA-ASEE Summer Faculty Fellowship Program. Voss, then a science instructor at West Point, was assigned to the Marshall Space Flight Center's propulsion lab in Alabama to analyze why a hydraulic fuel pump seal on the space shuttle was working so well when previous seals had failed. It was a seemingly tiny problem amid the vast complexities of running the space program. Yet it was important to NASA because any flaw in the seals could have led to devastating consequences for the astronauts who relied on them.

I worked a bit with NASA engineers," says Voss, "but I did it mostly by analysis. I used a handheld calculator, not a computer, to do a thermodynamic analysis." At the end of the summer, he, like the other NASA-ASEE fellows working at Marshall, summarized his findings in a formal presentation and detailed paper. It was a valuable moment for Voss because the ASEE program gave him added insight into NASA, deepened his desire to fly in space, and enhanced his application for astronaut status.

Not that it was an easy process. Voss was actually passed over when he first applied for the astronaut program in 1978. Over the next nine years he reapplied repeatedly, and was finally accepted in 1987. Voss went on to participate in three space missions. His first flight in 1991 focused on deploying an early-warning satellite for the Defense Department. In 1992, he participated in another military mission in space, which remains classified. In 1995, he helped to deploy and retrieve two satellites, and went on a space walk. The 50-year-old Army colonel, who lives in Houston, is now in training for a four-month mission as a crew member on the International Space Station starting in July 2000.

Voss says the NASA-ASEE Summer Faculty Fellowship Program is wonderful for all involved. "It brings in people from the academic world and gives NASA a special asset for a particular period of time. It brings some fresh eyes and fresh ideas to NASA, and establishes a link with our colleges and universities," Voss explains. "There's an exchange of information and an exchange of perspectives that is very important."

For the academic side, Voss says, the ASEE program also "brings institutions of higher learning more insight into new technology. We give them an opportunity to work on real-world problems and take it back to the classroom. It's a real synergy."

Out of the Spotlight

NASA could benefit from even more of that synergy right now. With the space agency having celebrated its 40th anniversary, it's been a long time since Americans were starry-eyed about space. Taxpayers tend to give their full support to the space program only when it produces results they can get truly excited about, such as John Glenn's first Earth orbit on February 20, 1962, and the first manned Moon landing on July 20, 1969. Not even Glenn's return to space as a 77-year-old space shuttle crew member last year could inspire the country as the space program did in those exciting early days.

None of this should come as a surprise. Over four decades, NASA has gone from a pillar of American self-confidence during the Cold War to primarily a scientific enterprise whose mission is harder to explain and whose budget is more difficult to justify. "The general public is not very science- and engineering-oriented in their interests," says Francis X. "Tim" Bradley, retired director of projects and federal relations for ASEE, who spent many years working with the space agency. "And NASA has a problem keeping the public interested. There's nothing really exciting about the space station [today], except for the engineering challenges. People question what this tremendous effort will amount to."

Glory Days

Yet not long after NASA was created on October 1, 1958, the nation saw the space agency as the repository of its hopes and dreams during a troubling and dangerous time. This was an era of widespread fear that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in space technology, and a panicky feeling that only a vast mobilization of minds and resources could make up the gap.

Congress's formation of the space agency, led by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, came partially in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, on October 4, 1957. The knowledge that this basketball-sized sphere was orbiting in the heavens raised fears that eventually the Soviet Union would place nuclear weapons in space and blackmail the United States with threats of devastation by mushroom cloud. In December 1957, the Navy tried to launch a Vanguard rocket to demonstrate the West's technological prowess, but it exploded on the launching pad, generating even more concern.

President Eisenhower pushed America's scientists hard and a team led by Wernher von Braun orbited the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, on January 31, 1958. After NASA's creation later that year, the agency led America's efforts to compete in the space race-but not without more scares and setbacks along the way.

There was widespread shock throughout the West, for example, when the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin as the first man to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961. President Kennedy, realizing that Americans needed a boost in confidence and reason to hope that the gap would be closed, announced on May 25 that America would surpass the Soviets in a very dramatic way. "This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth," Kennedy said. The quest for that goal became known as the Apollo project, and it marked the start of NASA's triumphant age.

A Long Partnership

ASEE was there almost from the beginning. In 1964, NASA and ASEE began supporting a program of summer faculty fellowships for full-time engineering and science educators at U.S. colleges and universities. Through the summer of 1998, more than 7,500 faculty members had participated, including astronaut Voss.

NASA historian Roger Launius says that space exploration is a cooperative effort. "No one organization, no one person, no one small group has the scientific and technical knowledge to fly in space," Launius explains. "What ASEE has been able to help with is to broaden the base of expertise available at any given time." He says NASA finds it particularly valuable to have educators help "break down barriers" to new ideas and techniques for problem-solving at the agency.

Bradley, who supervised ASEE's summer program for years, says the collaboration has not only expanded the vistas of the educators, but helped NASA in a number of ways, such as by bringing added expertise to many projects and giving the space agency the inside track in recruiting the most outstanding engineers from academe.

Launius agrees. "It's an opportunity to bring in people mostly from [academe] to do real hands-on research inside the agency," he says. "We can bring aboard someone with specialized expertise for three months, getting the right person at the right time, to the benefit of the agency. . . . And it allows the building of closer ties and cross- fertilization of people with different perspectives, different talents."

Those combined talents helped shape virtually every major NASA program, including its most historic-Apollo, which cost $24 billion in 1965 dollars according to a New York Times estimate, and which at its apex involved 36,000 workers and huge numbers of contract employees.

Yet the manned space program has not escaped serious problems. One of the most tragic came in January 1967, when three astronauts died in a fire in their spacecraft on the launching pad.

But in the end, NASA delivered on Kennedy's challenge.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon in a moment still etched in the minds of billions of people around the world. His words-"One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"-have become part of the lore of the 20th century, symbolizing a moment of international communion when what had seemed unreachable for untold generations had finally been attained, and when the genius of America seemed to know no limits.

But after the Moon landings ended in 1972, Americans seemed to lose considerable interest in space. The United States had established clear superiority over the Soviets, and the vast cost of the space program seemed excessive. Meanwhile, problems at home multiplied, including a troubled economy; social problems such as racism, poverty, and the disaffection of young people with the dominant culture; and the Watergate scandal. A seemingly endless war in Vietnam further absorbed America's attention and made space exploration seem, at least to some, both frivolous and self-indulgent.

NASA, feeling the budget crunch, canceled plans to build huge space stations and send manned missions to Mars. The space shuttle, first launched in 1981, survived, but its circumscribed version of manned space travel, limited only to orbital flights, was a shadow of NASA's earlier glories and it failed to capture the public imagination as Apollo had done. The Challenger explosion in January 1986, in which seven astronauts died shortly after liftoff, set NASA back in public confidence. Recovery has been slow.

The portion of the federal budget devoted to NASA or space flight averaged 2.7 percent from 1962-64, increased to 3.3 percent from 1965-67, and dropped to 2.1 percent from 1968-72. Since then, the percentage has declined further, and today the number is 0.7 percent, or $13.8 billion, according to NASA officials.

Flying High Again

Still, the agency has continued to develop an impressive series of missions despite the ups and downs of federal spending and public approval. In 1971, Mariner 9 orbited and mapped Mars. In 1976, two Viking spacecraft landed on Mars. Starting in the late 1970s, the unmanned Voyager series flew past Jupiter and Saturn and headed for other planets. The Hubble Space Telescope has already transmitted pictures of space that astronomers say substantially increase their knowledge of the universe.

In 1997, a Pathfinder spacecraft released Sojourner, a small robotic rover, on Mars to transmit full-color images back to Earth. Scientists are still analyzing the thousands of photos received. And plans are in place for another Mars project, one that will collect and return soil samples to Earth.

What's next? NASA has been attempting to implement what its leaders call a "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy, based on developing less expensive, smaller spacecraft. Probes are to be sent to comets and asteroids. And with a renewed spirit of pragmatism, NASA is working on new satellites that measure rainfall and atmospheric gases on Earth. NASA officials also plan more shuttle missions and continued work on the International Space Station.

Astronaut Voss and NASA leaders point out that the space agency is the only major government organization that is systematically thinking about and planning for the "preservation of the human race in case of potential catastrophe," such as a massive meteor strike or a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. These potential disasters have been the subject of several recent movies, including last summer's blockbuster Armageddon, which painted the space agency in a very favorable light. NASA cooperated extensively with that film's producers, allowing them to film a shuttle launch and even hosting the movie premiere party at the Kennedy Space Center.

Voss senses that public support is building again. "When I talk or give speeches around the country, there is the same feeling from years ago," he says. "People still love the space program." Voss looks forward to future Moon missions and especially to the resumption of Mars exploration to deepen the trend. "That," he predicts, "will really recapture public interest."

Kenneth T. Walsh is senior writer at U.S. News & World Report.

 

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