When federal budget cuts and NASA program changes vaporized money for teaching the public about a University of Arizona-led space mission, scientists stepped in to keep the educational programs alive.
Dante Lauretta, the UA planetary scientist who leads OSIRIS-REx, said he couldn’t envision a NASA mission without a plan to inspire future scientists and engineers. So he set out to remedy the situation by creating his own companies.
“I’m an educator,” said Lauretta, who has set aside his teaching duties at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory to devote full attention to the $800-million contract NASA awarded the UA to design and run the mission.
OSISRIS-REx, which aims to rendezvous with an asteroid and bring part of it back to Earth, will launch in less than two years for a journey to a distant asteroid named Bennu, named in a contest the mission ran with the Planetary Society.
Lauretta teamed with Michael Lyon, an entrepreneur who previously worked with Space Adventures to arrange “space tourism” visits to the International Space Station, to create Xtronaut Enterprises.
LOSS of $4 million
Education money for OSIRIS-REx was removed in 2013.
President Obama had recommended a budget that consolidated educational programs in STEM areas under the Department of Education, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Science Foundation.
NASA missions, which had always included a percentage share of budget for such purposes, were penciled out of the deal just as the UA was signing its decision memo with NASA.
“In the case of OSIRIS-REx, they said, literally, remove the element called education and public outreach in your program,” said Lauretta.
That meant a loss of $4 million — and it meant the mission was no longer obligated to create educational programs. Lauretta said he still felt personally obligated.
“I feel very strongly about the role missions like this have in the education of students in this country and really all over the world,” he said.
Lyon and Lauretta have formed two companies. A for-profit firm is developing materials for use in the classroom and a nonprofit will raise money to provide the materials free-of-charge, beginning with the Sahuarita Unified School District.
Lyon said the company intends to introduce the materials across the state, the country and around the world.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is “the most important mission of the next decade,” Lyon said.
In addition to possibly uncovering the building blocks of life in the pristine asteroid samples that will be returned to Earth, the mission will learn more about the dynamics of asteroids and their orbits.
That knowledge will help space scientists “better predict if they’re going to hit us and learn how we are going to stop them. This is like (the movie) ‘Armageddon,’ ” he said.
Manuel Valenzuela, superintendent of the Sahuarita district, said joining the Xtronaut program was an easy decision for him and his principals in the district south of Tucson.
“First of all, it’s an opportunity to build a strong and meaningful partnership with a world-class research project being implemented right here in our community.”
He said it fit the district’s emphasis on education in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math to “partner with them in creating hands-on, authentic and meaningful scientific activities that promote high-quality learning and get students excited.”
“I was a middle-school science teacher and have a strong interest in all things science and in science education and making it exciting and motivating for young people,” he said.
Materials, available by August 2015, include workbooks, videos by mission scientists and experiments, all geared to three different age groups.
The business model for Xtronauts includes a fundraising campaign to make the materials available for free.
Xtronauts has joined with Cox Communications to raise that money. Cox will produce a series of 30-second commercials about OSIRIS-REx that can be sponsored, with the sponsorship fee used to offset the program’s costs.