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Is it common for astrophysicists to work at NASA?

  1. Sep 28, 2010 #1


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    The popular perception certainly thinks so. When I tell people that I'm into astrophysics and they ask what I want to go into, they often ask if I want to go into NASA.

    But I don't see NASA as a common profession for astrophysicists (it's really the planetary scientists/earth scientists who work more with NASA). And NASA is all about building probes, so it also has many engineers. But does it employ a significant number of astrophysicists? Do prospective astrophysicists see it as a viable option?
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  3. Sep 28, 2010 #2
    Define what you mean by "working at NASA," please. Do you mean being a civil servant directly employed by NASA and the federal government? Do you mean being a contractor, working for a company that has a contract with NASA? Or do you mean a researcher (for instance, at a university), who has a grant through NASA?

    Those are the 3 basic working groups at NASA. There are some civil servant astrophysicists, there are likely very few contractor astrophysicists. The majority of astrophysicists receiving NASA money in some form are grantees. I have no idea on exact numbers.

    There are approximately 10 astrophysics missions in operation being run by NASA right now, with another dozen or so in development or under study. These do not include the balloon program and the rocket program.

    Who do you think proposes these missions? Who do you think designs the experiments? Analyzes the data? Determines if the data are consistent with current models?

    Astrophysics falls under the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). You can find the astrophysics page of the SMD here: http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/

    EDIT: I am assuming that an astrophysicist is a PhD here.
  4. Sep 28, 2010 #3

    D H

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    The astrophysics missions page, http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/missions/ lists fifteen missions in operation, not ten. HOWEVER, a quick scan of that list reveals a big gaping hole in that list: Where's SOHO? The Solar Dynamics Observatory?

    The answer to this question is that NASA deems studying the Sun to be so important that it is split off into a category by itself, heliophysics (http://science.nasa.gov/heliophysics/). If studying what is going on in our own Sun ain't astrophysics, I don't know what is. There are sixteen operational missions that are under the purview of heliophysics.
  5. Sep 28, 2010 #4
    That is because 15 is approximately 10. Hence the approximately qualifier. But thanks for taking the time to count.

    They also consider planetary science outside of astrophysics proper. Seems astrophysics is meant to be anything outside our solar system. Seems reasonable to structure it that way.

    Remember NASA is a big huge bureaucracy and people spend a lot of time categorizing and departmentalizing things. Then every few years they change it.
  6. Sep 28, 2010 #5
    Presumably you're speaking to people that aren't in academia. NASA is probably the only thing that comes to mind when the average-man hears astrophysics, that's the only reason - NASA has publicity seeing as they went to the moon.
  7. Sep 28, 2010 #6
    You *REALLY* don't want to work directly for NASA. Everyone that I know that works directly totally hates it because NASA is a generally dysfunctional organization.

    However most of the scientists that are involved in space flight work either through a laboratory that is contracted by NASA (such as JPL) and and you have a lot of people that get grants and funding through NASA, but NASA isn't the organization that signs their paycheck.

    NASA is more about managing the building of probes. The actual building gets done by contractors. This means that NASA itself tends to be a political battleground. One reason NASA is such a mess is that you have different groups of people that think that NASA should do different things, and so you end up with messy compromises in which nothing really gets done.

    Astrophysicists depend heavily on NASA to provide data and so you have a lot of astrophysicists that are involved in designing and running space telescopes. Most of them don't have NASA on their paycheck but a significant number of them get their paychecks through funding that goes through NASA. What NASA typically does is to get outside groups (usually universities) to do a lot of the work through contracts and grants, rather than hiring people directly.
  8. Sep 28, 2010 #7

    D H

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    You are misreading things. First off, planetary science is to some extent outside of astrophysics proper. The head of the planetary science subcommittee is a planetary geologist, for example. That said, some of the planetary science subcommittee members *are* astrophysicists.

    On the other hand, the physics of what goes on in a star is one of the primary concerns of astrophysics. NASA has separated heliophysics out as a discipline of special interest because understanding what is going on in *our* sun is of singular importance to *us*. The heliophysics subcommittee is full of astrophysicists.

    A better name for the astrophysics subcommittee might have been "the subcommittee for miscellaneous science conducted by NASA, almost all of which has something to do with astrophysics". Scratch that, it's the astrophysics subcommittee.
  9. Sep 28, 2010 #8

    D H

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    Much as NASA would like there to be "One NASA," there isn't. There are many distinct groups within NASA that work in areas that fall under the rubric of "astrophysics". Like any large organization, some of those groups will look a whole lot like a Dilbert cartoon, but others won't. Your "Everyone that I know" might just be a case of sampling bias.

    I know a lot of people who work directly for NASA and many of them absolutely love it. Except now, maybe. Thursday is October 1, the start of the new fiscal year. This year is looking to be a two or three sigma outlier as far as change of fiscal year bureaucratic craziness goes.

    JPL is a weird sort of beast. It is treated more as if it were a NASA center rather than a contractor. For example, you will not find a lockheed.nasa.gov webpage but you will find a jpl.nasa.gov webpage. Except JPL is a contractor, kind of. Specifically, JPL is a Federally Funded Research & Development Center. The national labs are also FFRDCs. The tie between NASA and JPL is much, much closer than the ties between the DOE its national labs.

    JPL, like other NASA centers, contracts out a lot of the development of its space probes. The same kinds of criticisms you levied against NASA also apply to JPL.
  10. Sep 29, 2010 #9
    Ah... but it has such a nice ring to it don't you think? :biggrin:
  11. Sep 29, 2010 #10

    This is largely true, but there are many exceptions. The previous few NASA administrations were all about making the civil servants (CS) into grant managers. There has been some push back and a good amount of headway made on getting CS doing research again (at least the small, corner in which I reside) and being involved as more than simple contract/grant managers.

    What I have found at NASA is that ever center is very different. The one I am at now (LaRC) is fairly research oriented, at least the groups I have had exposure to. The main problem with NASA (in my opinion) is it lacks political inertia. No one is behind it politically, but everyone expects greatness out of it. In addition, there is an environment where failure is not an option. Sometimes research goes wrong. If that happens at NASA, it makes every major newspaper's front page.

    This only actually pertains to exploration. It has not been the case in the research directorate or the science directorate, in my experience.

    This can be said about any government entity. What exactly do you expect when your budget has to be approved by congress every year? Nothing like a few hundred politicians with their own personal, pet agendas deciding how much money you get. I am glad I don't manage any programs, because I see what the program managers have to deal with. "Get this project done... (next year) oh sorry we cut your budget in half. Finish the project on time nonetheless."

    NASA does get crap loads of things done. Maybe not it's not as agile or frugal as it should be, but there is plenty of science and engineering that comes out of NASA.

    EDIT: Sorry I missed DH's comment.
    This is spot on!
  12. Sep 29, 2010 #11
    Absolutely. Most of my experience with NASA itself has to do with people that work in the manned space flight centers in Texas and Florida, and manned space flight is a mess for reasons that go beyond NASA.

    What I do find interesting is that people that could say that they work for NASA don't think of themselves as working for NASA. If you have someone that works at the STScI or at JPL, they will never say that they are working for NASA since NASA is "them."

    Caltech is the contractor for JPL. I think part of the reason things are what they are is that all of the DOE labs have stakeholders and funding that goes outside of DOE.
  13. Sep 29, 2010 #12
    My observation is that you have different interest groups that each want NASA to do something different, so you end up with these messy political compromises that end up making things worse since you end up with "half a bridge to nowhere."

    That's why manned space flight and scientific research really don't mix. If you want to make progress in science, sometimes you have to have the rocket blow up, and if you have a human being strapped to the rocket, that's not an option.

    Sure, and that's why I have a lot of admiration for politicians and managers that can get stuff done. Personally, I think the best thing that could happen to the US manned space program is if China announces that it's going to colonize Mars, at which point people start to focus.

    And if you *do* by some miracle get the project done on time and under-budget, they'll cut your budget in half next year and scream at you for wasting taxpayers money the year earlier. :-) :-) :-)
  14. Sep 29, 2010 #13
    It seems to me that the reason heliophysics is a separate committee is more basic. You can send a space probe to the sun, whereas for other stars you have to watch from a distance, and the fact that you can go to the sun changes the science that you can do.
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