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NASA Glenn Collaboration with Higher Education

On a sunny spring morning on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, Chairman of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Joseph Prahl walks from the Engineering School office to the building which houses many of the department's research labs. Students hurrying to class don't wear pocket protectors or sport slide rules and buzz haircuts. Many are women. Prahl says there have been a lot of changes since his first days of teaching at Case in the early 1970's. But one thing he says hasn't changed is the school's strong ties to NASA Glenn.

Joseph Prahl: True education comes from inquiry. To do well, we need to do research. To do research you need money, equipment, challenging problems to work on. That's the synergy between us and NASA.

Prahl, who was once a back-up payload specialist for a Space Shuttle flight in microgravity research, says Case has had a close relationship with the Cleveland research center since NASA established Glenn in 1941. Just eight years ago, Glenn and Case co-founded the National Center for Microgravity Research, a program now in its second five-year grant. Case engineers also work on fuel cell research with Glenn. Added to the host of individual faculty grants and fellowships, Glenn's funding of Case research was more than $4 million last year. But Joe Prahl says it's students who ultimately benefit from the association with NASA.

Joseph Prahl: They think there's just something glamorous and exciting about it - and there's no question. It captures the spirit, the human imagination and kids want to do it.

But Prahl acknowledges there's a new concern on campus that some of the NASA research dollars Case has traditionally received may be harder to come by in future. The agency's new focus on space may mean fewer research dollars for Ohio universities. Over the last five years NASA Glenn's budget for funding university collaboration has shrunk. David Kankam, Glenn's University Affairs Officer for Research and Technology, says that's because a lot of the money for funding research positions used to come from NASA headquarters. Now it comes straight out of Glenn's budget. For example, faculty fellowships.

David Kankam: We've got a few slots from here and a few slots from there and that's the support they're giving the center. We typically need about 30 faculty members, so we have to come up with about thirteen or fourteen paid for ourselves.

Kankam says graduate and undergraduate research opportunities have suffered a similar setback. But he says it's not just universities that will be the poorer. Glenn loses, too. Kankam says the center needs universities to inject new ideas and fresh perspectives. Glenn also needs a new generation of well-trained engineers and scientists to replace its aging workforce. But Charles Alexander, Dean of the Fenn College of Engineering at Cleveland State University, is more optimistic. He's working with about 30 CSU students and faculty to build a new NASA satellite that will be launched in the next five years.

Charles Alexander: Steve and Katie are actually undergrads.

Katie Renfrow: Katie Renfrow, I'm a mechanical engineering major. With the satellite program, I do the structural system and also a solar panel deployment system that's part of my unit design project.

Charles Alexander: Steve is one of our freshmen.

Steven Dunn: My name is Steven Dunn. I'm working on 3-D design and prototype modeling. We design parts for the satellite and for NASA.

Satellites are just one part of CSU's NASA collaboration, worth $5 million last year. When he joined the faculty two years ago, Dean Alexander launched a new aerospace research center called CREATE.

Charles Alexander: The Center for Research and Aerospace Technology is basically a CSU center we're developing into a national laboratory for NASA.

Alexander says among the projects he wants to develop under CREATE is a research test bed for a new service module for the next generation of crew exploration vehicles. But he believes it's students like Steve Dunn who will be the biggest winners.

Steven Dunn: It's very interesting for me to - at my age - do this kind of stuff. I don't know any of my friends who do this kind of stuff. (general laughter) And it's amazing that I've had the opportunity to do something like this.

Both Steve and Katie are planning to go on to grad school. And while they may never work for NASA Glenn, Dean Alexander believes others will.

Charles Alexander: I don't want to minimize the concern people should have about the cuts that could take place. But on the other hand, I really believe we're going to be fine, that NASA Glenn will be fine.

But some of that will depend on Congress, as it debates the President's 2006 budget on Capitol Hill this year. And the rest will depend on how much of NASA's new aerospace work Glenn can win in the years ahead. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.