The US space agency NASA is trying to bring more university researchers — with fresh ideas — into its fold. But although they welcome the initiative, many researchers are waiting to see how much money NASA will put where its mouth is.
In recent years, budget cuts have forced NASA to reduce its research spending. As a result, universities have felt neglected, and have criticized the agency for becoming too inward-looking. The new effort, dubbed the ‘University Initiative’, is intended to change that, says Randall Correll, a NASA spokesman.
Spence Armstrong, a US Air Force veteran who has been with NASA since 1991 — most recently as head of the agency's aeronautics and space transportation section — will oversee the initiative. In February he was appointed senior adviser to NASA administrator Dan Goldin.
The scheme will be launched next month, when NASA will hold the first of several planned ‘cyber-conferences’ in Washington. The conference, to be broadcast live over a NASA cable television channel as well as the Internet, is intended to develop ideas for collaboration in four areas: space flight, space science, Earth science and aerospace technology.
During the conference, Armstrong and Goldin will invite proposals from university researchers. Although they must ultimately benefit NASA, proposals will not have to be strictly space-related.
“If you look at recent NASA activities, some of the technologies we're starting to invest in, such as biologically inspired engineering, these types of things show that we're expanding,” says Correll. “Things have become much more complicated than just building a rocket ship and going into space.”
For example, says Correll, a robotic mission to Mars to search for signs of life might make use of studies of life on Earth. “Once you've studied what life is like here, you might change your type of sensor sweeps that you put on your spacecraft.”
But despite a 7% increase in NASA's budget, Armstrong acknowledges that the agency will need even more money in the next budget to underwrite the initiative. He will not name a figure, but he has told his budget designers to be “reasonably bold” in their request.
Another variable is the US presidential election in November. President Bill Clinton's administration will prepare the next federal budget before then, but Congress will not take it up until after the new administration proposes any adjustments.
But some observers are optimistic. “Armstrong has already come to us and asked our membership for ideas and advice,” says Jacques L'Heureux, director of University Relations for Space Sciences at the Universities Space Research Association. “He seems very serious.”
University researchers have been “very receptive”, says Correll. But, he adds, “the biggest fear, as you might expect, is that when the government says ‘we're here to help’, the feeling is that talk is easy”.