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Dollars From Heaven: NASA spending hits wide area including Pa., W.Va. and Ohio

First of a three-part series

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The shocking news of the Space Shuttle Columbia's explosion had barely settled in before congressional leaders were questioning the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its $15 billion annual budget.


Dollars from Heaven

Related articles,
Day One

NASA brought economic boost to West Virginia

Life in Huntsville isn't rocket science, but it's pretty close

The Series

Day Two
NASA-funded research small but vital

Day Three
Thousands of companies get pieces of NASA pie


But the probing questions about why the space shuttle disintegrated and what the space program's future should be may obscure one compelling reason for the agency's existence:

NASA pumps lots of money into the national economy, and virtually every state in the union reaps some benefit from space program spending or from spinoff companies that are based on space program research.

Nearly all of NASA's direct spending now goes to private contractors and universities. Even the astronauts themselves are no longer trained by NASA, but by United Space Alliance, a private firm jointly formed by the Boeing and Lockheed Martin companies to manage the shuttle program.

Last year, NASA pumped a total of $11.2 billion into companies, nonprofits, universities and research centers located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

While the money is widely distributed, some areas obviously benefit more than others.

In this region, for instance, Fairmont, W.Va., is aided by the existence of NASA's Independent Verification and Validation Facility, which double-checks almost all the software used on space shuttle flights. And at Wheeling Jesuit University, NASA funds the Classroom of the Future Project, to provide schools with computerized lessons based on NASA research work.

Those locales, though, don't hold a candle to a city like Huntsville, Ala., which practically exists because of NASA largesse.

Huntsville is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center, which oversees the propulsion systems for the space shuttle flights. One of every 13 residents in the Alabama community is an engineer -- and very often, a space engineer.

NASA's impact also shows up in direct research grants to universities.

More than $720 million of the space agency's annual budget goes toward academic research grants. And while its research spending is dwarfed by that of some other federal agencies, NASA is the dominant player in astronomy and aeronautical and astronomical research funding.

In Pennsylvania, Penn State University and Carnegie Mellon University are among the top 25 NASA research grant recipients.

On a state-by-state basis, the biggest NASA beneficiary is Texas.

For federal fiscal year 2002, which ended Sept. 30, Texas received the highest percentage of NASA contracts awarded to private companies, nonprofit groups and universities -- more than $3.8 billion, or one-third of the contracts awarded.

Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center, which prompted the famous quote, "Houston, we've got a problem," uttered during the aborted Apollo 13 mission by Cmdr. James Lovell.

NASA started operations in Houston in 1961, during the infancy of the American space program. The center was named after Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan who oversaw much of NASA's dramatic growth during his presidency in the 1960s.

The Houston center now has 3,300 government employees and manages two of NASA's best-known programs, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Coming in second on the NASA 2002 contract award list was California, which got $1.55 billion. Maryland ranked third at $1.27 billion.

California's ranking is based largely on three major operations -- the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where more than 5,000 private contract employees work on NASA projects; the Dryden Flight Research Center, with 650 employees at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert; and the Ames Research Center, with almost 1,500 employees in the Silicon Valley.

Maryland ranks high because of research grants given to Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore and the presence of the Goddard Space Flight Center. Founded in 1959 and named for rocket propulsion pioneer Robert Goddard, it has nearly 3,000 employees.

The Goddard center manages the Hubble Space Telescope, runs NASA's main satellite communications network and controls more than 24 orbiting spacecraft.

Many people obviously associate Florida with NASA because that is where the space shuttles are launched. At $826 million in contracts last year, Florida is fourth on NASA's list. The Kennedy Space Center there has more than 1,700 employees.

Not many states in the Midwest or Northeast are high on NASA's list of contract money, but Ohio doesn't do badly, ninth on the list, with $210 million in business and university contracts last year.

One reason for its high position is a major NASA facility in Cleveland -- the John H. Glenn Research Center, named after the first American in space and the former U.S. senator from Ohio. The site was previously known as the Lewis Research Center.

About 2,000 people are employed at the facility, which has worked on developing jet engines since 1941. One aspect of its mission has been developing power systems for the Space Station.

Astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia, which went into space Jan. 16, worked on seven science experiments designed at the NASA Glenn center.

Pennsylvania is far down on the list of states in terms of contracts handed out by NASA. For fiscal 2002, Pennsylvania got about $56 million in space-related contracts, putting it 20th of the 50 states.

West Virginia, thanks in large part to the political pull of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, ranked 19th on the list with $61 million in NASA contracts.

Much of the money coming to Pennsylvania goes to Carnegie Mellon, which has received nearly $50 million from NASA since 1994.

That includes $2.5 million in seed funds for the National Robotics Engineering Consortium, a part of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute that is located in an old foundry in Lawrenceville. NASA provided $13 million over the past nine years for the consortium, funding that ended in July.

The Carnegie Mellon funds include $8.1 million for 2002, much of it for CMU's famed robotics research.

Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

Tomorrow: The power of NASA's research

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