Excellent news for an excellent program

by guest blogger Ken

Eagle-eyed Keith Cowing over at NASAWatch has spotted a European press release for sponsorship of an ESA student at the NASA Academy.

This is great news for the excellent NASA Academy program. With so many programs at risk right now, this is one of those great programs that tends to irk people because it does so well, and, at least when I was there, the Academy was funded by Director’s Discretionary Funds (DDF), meaning that it had to fight for its very existence every year. Good old budgetary and program politicking.

Here’s the backstory:

Way back in the 1990s, Dr. Gerald Soffen, of Mars Viking renown, was impressed with the structure being used by the International Space University of collecting a pool of bright, motivated youngsters together each summer and letting them cut their teeth on supervised space projects while getting lectured by the top names in the space field. Dr. Soffen got together with the Goddard Space Flight Center Director, Al Diaz, and they carved out a portion of the DDF to run this program.

The Research Assistants (RAs) usually dorm at a fraternity/sorority house at the University of Maryland and commute to GSFC. Each day includes lecture sessions on a variety of space related topics, and the RAs have to spend time in the labs working on projects. There are periodic field trips, in our case to Orbital, NASA HQ, NASM, white-water rafting & spelunking (team building exercises), Langley, Wallops, Kennedy, Johnson. and others.

We got lectures on topics from quantum mechanics to Lunar geology. The RAs were exposed to a great deal of how the NASA system is put together. Poster sessions were required, and they had to dress nice when they went to go see O’Keefe testifying in front of Congress or visit the 9th Floor at HQ. A Team Project was also required, and I think they did some kind of Mars thing since they didn’t want to do the African Dust project. (I was thoroughly bored with Mars at that point, as the ISU project had also been some kind of Mars thing. I wanted to learn more about the Moon, but was frustrated at every turn. It was thus, in that dark hour of seemingly endless, unfathomable Martian horror back in 2002, that the initial concept of the Lunar Library was born).

The RAs also had to make formal presentations of the projects they had worked on during the 10-week session. It was pretty rigourous, and even I, as Program Support, had to work on a project, in my case analyzing over 10 years of DDF projects for the Technology Transfer Office to analyze how the two could work together to see that this wild new tech was getting out into the commercial markets. I still boggle at some of the concepts, and have difficulty with the whole adiabatic demagnetization refrigeration concept. And quantum mechanics, and birefringence. I was just a punk banker kid fresh out of ISU’s Master of Space Studies program, and my obnoxious bio with my international man of mystery photo is still up over at the GSFC Academy website.

I’m especially happy to hear this news, as one of the things I helped to accomplish while working at the Academy was to arrange a meeting with an ultra-nice young lady at the French Embassy who was working with CNES to arrange some kind of student exchange. We had a very productive first meeting (communication had started before I got there) that the permanent staff kept working after I was gone, and I was able to charm the young lady into letting us eat lunch in the embassy cafeteria after the meeting. The next year there was a young researcher from SupAero in Toulouse at the Academy, and it looks like the exchange has really blossomed. Dave Rosage has been doing a great job with it, and the ranks of alumni continue to grow, with a fresh crop of future alumni starting after the ISDC. Sorry, the application deadline for US students just passed on the 16th, but there’s always the 2008 Academy, hopefully with even more Center choices (something else that Dave is working on).

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4 Responses to Excellent news for an excellent program

  1. lsvalentine says:

    Sounds like fun for the participants. Do they ever build anything?

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s a NASA program. Ofcourse they never build anything.

  3. murphydyne says:

    If you link through to, for example, the Goddard Academy and visit the profiles for the individual RAs you’ll see the information on their projects. The 2000 Academy, to cite one, has pictures of the RAs in their labs.

    They work on cutting edge ideas at the different Centers. Some involve programming, others piece design and fabbing. It all depends on a) the background of the RA, and b) the DDF projects approved for the Center that year. They then try to match them up as best they can.

    The Alumni and University Program community is now starting the process of reviewing this year’s applicants backgrounds to cull the field to the most outstanding of those outstanding individuals that seek out these sorts of programs.

    So yes, some of them do ‘build’ stuff.

  4. Jessica says:

    Hi, Ken,

    Ah, I see you leave out any mention of the history of NASA Academies at other Centers… I believe Ames has had eight, Marshall has had six, Dryden has had four, and Glenn has had two… and they all have had Jerry Soffen’s original goal of creating an intensive summer research and leadership experience (and much more) for outstanding college students. This summer ARC, GRC, GSFC, and MSFC will be hosting Academies.

    And yes, I’ve seen students “build”, test, do lab experiments, take observations, and more in this program. No one complains that they’re not doing real work, or not getting enough of it (and these students would if they didn’t feel they were getting a full workload).

    Thanks!
    Jessica (ARC ’04, MSFC ’05 staff, GRC ’06 staff)

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