A fledgling NASA program that aims to tap some of the best graduate student talent in the US is facing a timeline challenge as it nears the start of its inaugural term.
The Space Technology Research Fellowships were unveiled in 2010 as a way to draw in “graduate student researchers who show significant potential to contribute to NASA’s strategic space technology objectives”. The fellowships are intended to fund a significant portion of a graduate student’s academic costs, including tuition, and will match each awardee with a NASA advisor.
However, as part of a newly created program, the fellowships require Congressional approval of NASA’s 2011 operating plan. This is still pending, thanks to the long delayed passage of a continuing resolution to fund the US government through to the end of September this year. The budget bill was finally enacted last month, but individual agencies, including NASA, are still working out how they will spend the money they’ve been allocated for the remainder of the fiscal year.
At a meeting today of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden voiced his dissatisfaction with the long drawn out budget process that could delay implementation of the fellowships.
“Frankly, I’m frustrated,” Bolden told council chair John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
After the session, NASA Chief Technologist, Robert D. Braun, whose office will sponsor the graduate student fellows, expressed confidence that the program would start on schedule despite bureaucratic hurdles. “We’ll get it done,” he said.
Braun said NASA has received about 500 hundred applications this year (the competition is now closed) and expects to award about 100 fellowships to graduate students who will pursue technical research projects starting in the coming academic year.
The program is part of a larger emphasis on technology development, which US President Barack Obama has identified as a high priority for NASA.
At the meeting, Bolden said concerns that NASA is losing its preeminent role in spaceflight as it transitions away from the space shuttle are misdirected. “That is immaterial; we are not moving away from human spaceflight,” he said. “Where NASA risks losing leadership is in research and development.”
Later, when asked by Holdren what specific technologies the agency saw it needed to pursue, Bolden cited a pair of examples that are seen as crucial to realizing long duration missions beyond Earth orbit: effective protection from space radiation and new propulsion systems that would cut travel time to Mars or other distant destinations by a half or more. “Those are the big two,” Bolden said.