Rumors have been flying about on twitter that the NASA academy program has ended, and 2015 was the last year. This obituary may be premature, but it seems a good at time as any to reflect on a program which has captured hearts and united so many across the space industry.
As a two-time attendee it saddens me to hear this program is ending, because the times that I had there were some of the most fun I had in my life. I loved the experience, and will look back on it with fond memories. The other students I met quickly became more than colleagues, but friends for life. Wherever I go in the space industry, I meet other alumni, and share the bond of our common experience. It is even the place where I met my soon-to-be wife!
While I and many others loved the experience, we should reflect on how the program performed. The goal of the program was to:
Identify and recruit the future leaders of the space exploration community, to introduce them to the key aspects of the industry, to provide them with critical training, and to build an ever-expanding network of these future leaders, so that these young scientists and engineers are prepared to assume the highest responsibilities of a career dedicated to leadership in space exploration.
The Academy was incredibly successful at introducing us to parts of the industry and helping us network with current and future leaders in the space industry. If the NASA academy was intended, in any way, to groom students for careers at NASA, I do not think it was successful. And while not part of their mission statement, the encouragement we received from our mentors to pursue NASA careers indicated that was a major component. Of the 12 Robotics Academy students in 2010, zero of us went on to a career at NASA. In fact, only one of us is currently working In the space industry, me. Of the three NASA academy programs at Marshall, representing 35 people, I currently know of only one who is, working full-time on a NASA program (as a contractor).
The NASA academy recruited the most ambitious, talented students, and when put together in our teams we were capable of great things. We also had a lot of fun. In fact, we had so much fun that the science and engineering challenges we were capable of accomplishing were secondary goals. Of the 10 weeks which I spent at the NASA robotics academy at Marshall Spaceflight Center, only half the days were allotted for working. While having fun and experiencing tours of other NASA centers was enriching, the act of pushing the frontier takes a lot of hard work. We, young ambitious engineers that we were (and for many of us, still are) wanted a challenge to make real contributions, and experience the fulfilling rewards and excitement that comes with that. We were told we were the best and brightest, but didn't have the opportunities to prove it.
For the precious time we did work on our internship projects, we found ourselves limited, not by our skills or creativity, but by resource availability in computers, software, budget, and union rules. I was forced to use my personal computer both years, because our computers were either non-existent or came without any software. There was no official budget for purchasing parts so at the 2010 academy all of the robots we did make were paid for by our mentor. We were not allowed operate any power tools with which to construct robots.
In my 2011 Robotics Academy experience at Ames, which did focus more time on the work, was disorganized, and its leadership was unfamiliar with the engineering process, especially for space vehicles.
If the NASA academy was to be a recruiting tool, it should have focused on making a challenging, rewarding, hard, fun work experience, not trying to be a summer camp. The best and the brightest seek the biggest challenges to do the most good. If anyone ever revives the NASA academy they would do well to remember that.
I have seen confirmation that the NASA academy at Ames has been cancelled, and so has the Robotics and Propulsion Academy at Marshall, leaving only one NASA academy at Marshall this year and one at Glenn. While not completely out, it would be a good time to evaluate why it exists, and what the students who come to it are looking for.