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Casey DreierMarch 28, 2013

What's Going On with NASA Education and Public Outreach?

Sequestration claims its next victim at NASA.

Last Friday, NASAWatch released an internal memo to NASA staff announcing an immediate suspension of all Education and Public Outreach (EPO)  activities, subject to further review. This is due to the Sequester, the indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts applied to all federal agencies.

Money quote:

Effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects.

We've been following this story very closely here at the Society, and I'm sorry I haven't blogged about this earlier. We've been trying to understand exactly what's affected, which is, at the moment, very difficult to do.

So here's what we know (and don't know) as of today:

  1. All operational web sites and social media accounts are exempt from this directive, and will continue to operate normally.
    This means that we should be able to continue downloading the latest raw images from Cassini and follow the Tweets of Curiosity, etc. The NASA website will remain open, as will their image and video archives.
  2. Many Educational activities are also exempt, including FIRST Robotics, active flight projects (like EarthKAM), and NASA Internships, Fellowships, and Grants.
  3. Media relations, including mission announcement events, media inquiries, and breaking news activities, are exempt.
  4. We do not yet know if this directive originated with NASA management or was imposed by the Office of Management and Budget.
  5. We do not know how long this suspension will be in place, or what kind of review EPO programs will be subjected to.
  6. We do not know how much money this will save NASA.

The immediate impact of this EPO suspension is difficult to understand.

"Is it going to kill anything off? I don't know." said Jason Townsend, Social Media Manager at NASA. "We're not stopping social media. We're working on doing it smarter, communicating missions in a more strategic manner."

Mr. Townsend went on to say that he "can't imagine" a mission in the future without a Social Media account, though the scope of those accounts may be smaller and focused on mission-critical qualities.

He also said that NASA Socials will continue to happen, but there is currently nothing scheduled due to lack of launch dates in the near future. When asked if there would be a NASA Social for LADEE, the next mission to the Moon set to launch in August, he said that there have been no decisions yet, but doesn't see why it wouldn't. Since NASA Socials would be managed by local NASA employees, the current ban on travel does not apply.

I've heard from other people associated with NASA say that headquarters is a mess right now. That much seems to be clear due to the numerous memos on the subject, lack of clear direction, clarifying language, or a statement from the NASA Administrator on the subject.

Cutting EPO may be necessary to preserve NASA's primary focus of sending scientific payloads and human beings into space. The sequester demands its ounce of flesh (well, technically 5.2% of total flesh), and it's up to NASA to find a way to do that without causing massive, costly delays in its programs.

The problem is that we just don't know how effective this will be, or what will be impacted, or how much money it will save. This just makes NASA look bad, and it causes an immediate chilling effect through all EPO programs, whether they are affected or not.

We're continuing to follow this issue closely. If you have any insight into specific projects that are impacted by this suspension, please email me so we can get details out there.

Read more: Explaining Policy, Space Policy

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Casey Dreier

Chief Advocate & Senior Space Policy Adviser for The Planetary Society
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