NCESSE Official Response to Sen. Tom Coburn: “billions of dollars being borrowed to support [SSEP] space station science fair experiments”

Today, Sen. Tom Coburn (OK) pointed to the Student Spaceflight Expeirments Program (SSEP) as an example of wasteful government spending. The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education finds his comments to be categorically inaccurate, and a great disservice to all the communities and partners that have worked hard to make SSEP a reality. Comments welcome below.

Here are exerpts from:

Coburn’s ‘Wastebook’ Targets Include Mountain Lions, Sheep, Beer
Roll Call, October 22, 2014

“Sen. Tom Coburn and his investigators have been busy in their most recent effort to unveil what they view as government waste and abuse.

The 2014 edition of the Oklahoma Republican’s annual “Wastebook” runs almost 250 pages and features more than 1,100 footnotes. It’s presumably the last such report Coburn will issue from his Senate perch, as he’s resigning his seat early at the end of the current Congress.

As in previous editions, the report highlights billions of dollars of projects that Coburn views as wasteful government spending.”


“NASA draws criticism in a few areas, with Coburn skeptical of the costs associated with the International Space Station itself, including the presence of experiments designed by students.

“Some of the other studies being conducted on the space station are designed by elementary and high school students rather than scientists. Fifteen student projects were launched to the space station in July as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP),” the report said. “While encouraging young people to take an interest in science is an important goal, the billions of dollars being borrowed to support space station science fair experiments could make a bigger impact in the lives of these and other children in many other more cost efficient ways.”


NCESSE’s Response –

“billions of dollars being borrowed to support space station science fair experiments …”, really?

As the Director of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), I want to be clear that Sen. Coburn’s characterization of this high caliber education program is misinformed, and his math is dead wrong.

SSEP is a U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education program created and overseen by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), a non-profit, in partnership with a commercial space company NanoRacks, and CASIS, the NASA-funded Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

Let’s consider the 15 experiments Sen. Coburn cites that were launched in July, which comprise just one of 9 SSEP missions to date. They were not “space station science fair projects”. Each of 15 participating communities was provided a small microgravity research mini-laboratory capable of supporting a single student team designed experiment, and launch services to get the min-lab to ISS – our national laboratory in space. Precisely mirroring how professional researchers compete for limited research assets, each community engaged hundreds of students in a very real research competition, with student teams designing microgravity experiments and writing formal research proposals. Those 15 experiments represent the culmination of 6,750 grade 5-12 students engaged in experiment design and 1,344 proposals submitted by research teams to Review Boards. Let me be clear – SSEP is a model STEM education program designed to immerse tens of thousands of students in a very authentic research experience, and to inspire and engage America’s next generation of scientists and engineers.

Next let me address Sen. Coburn’s math regarding SSEP use of federal funds. The cost to deliver the national programming, including all launch and return to Earth services, across these 15 communities was $322,500. The communities brought another roughly $300,000 to the table in fully burdened labor hours by their teaching staff to deliver the program at the local level. Through a significant effort, in the best spirit of partnership, $572,500 of the total $622,500 cost was raised in the private sector, from over 85: local companies, school districts, foundations, universities, PTAs, and individual donors (see the Local Partners list). The remaining $50,000 was federal funding provided by CASIS to close budget shortfalls across the 15 communities. That funding truly enabled many communities to participate.

So the amount provided to SSEP from the $3 billion in ISS operations funding was just $50,000 through CASIS, which has as one of its statutory requirements utilization of ISS to promote STEM education. The cost to federal taxpayers was just 8% of the total program cost, which means each federal dollar was leveraged by over 11 private, charity, and community dollars. From NASA’s vantage point, we are enabling the ISS program and CASIS to meet Congress’ education mandate via a high caliber, science education program for less than ten cents on the dollar.

There is another point to be made. Why should these SSEP communities be provided access to ISS for worthy STEM education? Because they helped pay to launch ISS, construct it, and operate it.

Instead of lambasting the program, Sen. Coburn should hold SSEP up as a national model for an innovative and efficient government-private sector partnership in STEM education. In a tough fiscal climate, partnership is the future. Sen. Coburn, given this clarification, surely you must agree.

Dr. Jeff Goldstein
Center Director
National Center for Earth and Space Science Education


The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with NanoRacks LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), and Subaru of America, Inc., are National Partners on the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

14 Responses to NCESSE Official Response to Sen. Tom Coburn: “billions of dollars being borrowed to support [SSEP] space station science fair experiments”

  1. Lenny Sue French October 22, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    As a public school educator of 26 years and the adult facilitator of TWO middle school projects that have flown in space through SSEP, I am disappointed by the Senator’s comments. Our community’s experience has been extremely powerful and relevant. There are hundreds of students that I have personally seen not only involved but inspired by scientific inquiry in REAL science. Life decisions have been made. I have seen many students who have changed their study habits, their critical thinking abilities and life’s ambition. Our school has forged relationships with local universities and community groups. This program is unlike anything else I’ve ever been a part of. As a taxpayer and a conservative I am very satisfied with this wise and efficient use of MY money.

  2. Randy Speck October 22, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

    I am also saddened by the Senators comments. He’s from the medical profession..he should know better. I serve as the Superintendent of a public school in Michigan and our first launch is scheduled for October 27, 2014. Our middle school studebts are so excited. The students who are having their experiment flown are four young Iraq girls who have only been in the states for a year. While learning how to do this experiment they were also learning how to speak English. They have had an amazing experience and it is one of the thrills of my career to witness this event. I hope for more launches in the future.

  3. Pam Kraus October 22, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    I am an educator who has had students design an experiment to compete to go to the ISS through the SSEP program. Although we were selected as a finalist and our experiment did not get to the ISS, the process of researching, designing an experiment and writing an actual research proposal was invaluable for my students. In a large part because of this experience I now have a student at the US Air Force Academy majoring in Astronautical Engineering. The small investment of federal funds is paying huge dividends through this innovative and inspiring program for students.

  4. Christine October 22, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

    Continue to be the light and fight the good fight!

  5. Beth Dole October 22, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

    Sadly, I am sure Senator Coburn has never watched a student be transformed through the reality of performing scientific research with SSEP. The experience was life changing for my daughter. She developed a love of science, and of space. Her future is bright due to this. Any college that gets students who have participated in SSEP will be thrilled to have students who have a passion to understand the world, ask questions, challenge conventional thought, have attended and presented at scientific conferences. These will be our scientists, engineers, astronauts, because of SSEP igniting a spark and transforming their lives.

  6. Julie Wade October 22, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

    This is absolutely unbelievable for this “leader”, Sen. Tom Coburn, to say this! My children participated in SSEP last year thru the school they attended, and my 15 year old son had a project launched just this week to the ISS. This is an investment in our future! It’s life changing for some of these kids! The experience was beyond wonderful for him and us, presenting in Washington DC at the Smithsonian. Everything these kids learn from participating from the science, to speaking skills, research skills, writting skills, life skills! Sen. Tom Coburn you should really attend and see for yourself what SSEP is all about before you speak such stupidity sir! This right here is only one example of the ignorance leading us all in this country and why our future looks pretty damn glum people! SSEP you are out of this world! Thank you! To all of you there that see the importance of this and for helping better my child and so many others, thank you! Sen. Coburn there should be a lot more of THIS type funding and a lot less funding of projects that go to all of your pockets!

  7. Michael Ostroff October 23, 2014 at 7:52 am #

    Dr. Goldstein,

    You represent all of our voices in your response to completely unfounded and misinformed comments by a US Senator, with clearly no regards to student experiences in STEM. Having served as a community director of the SSEP for three missions in my previous district, I was able to see first hand, the impact of the program for our students, in a low income district. With the support of the community and private donors, we were able to immerse students in an opportunity to apply their science skills in a real, out of this, world context. The true research, inquiry, experimental design and practice, and the collaboration among students represents the high level application in STEM that we hope becomes a mainstay in schools. The NCESSE should be extremely proud of their commitment to this and should continue to advance science and STEM education.

  8. Meredith Swartzendruber October 23, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    Thank you for your response to his comments. SSEP is a tremendous program that actively engages thousands of students every year in real life experimental design. For a career field that is supposed to triple in the next few years, we should be encouraging our students and teachers to engage in such STEM programs. There are so many more government waste-producing items that should have been on the receiving end of his comments. I look forward to our launch this coming spring with Mission 7!

  9. Stacy Hughes October 23, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    Someone needs to tell Sen. Coburn that elementary and middle school students ARE scientists. It’s sad that someone in his position cannot see the value of casting such a vision for them. Investing in the development of talents among our youth is not something I would call waste. It is a good thing he will no longer be serving in the Senate.

  10. Jacob Tanenbaum October 23, 2014 at 12:42 pm #

    This is not surprising. Although Tom Coburn is a medical doctor, he has spent his career in public office attacking and denying scientific work of so many kinds. He is a self-proclaimed climate change denier. He has repeatedly attacked research funded by the National Science Foundation, and has stood in the way of stem cell research, medical care and so much more.

    In education, Coburn has been a staunch opponent of anything he considers to be “government involvement” in schools. By this he means if it is a federal program, it must be bad. Instead, he favors local control and decision making. So here is a situation where local communities did exactly what he asked them to do. We worked together – businesses, local governments, and schools, and together, funded and carried out an extraordinary opportunity for the young people in our area. Now he is attacking all our hard work based on what can politely be called misinformation. What a tragedy.

  11. Sonna Smith October 23, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    Shame on you, Senator Tom Coburn. Your salary would have been $174,000 (2014 Senate Default Member Salary salary) for the 2014 fiscal year, and you are begrudging a Federal Government outlay of $10 per student to participate in the mission 5 flight to the international space station. I would say that the federal government received quite a large investment in improving the science provided to students for their cost outlay.

  12. David Milch October 24, 2014 at 5:38 am #

    I am absolutely disappointed with Sen. Tom Coburn’s commentary that is so ill-informed. His willingness to target a program with such cursory information borders on being slanderous through gross misrepresentation. Through his actions, he shows a willingness to damage an incredibly financially efficient model that promotes science. My students and I engaged in a Mission 5 competition and were chosen as the experiment to fly. This has changed many of my students’ perspective of this arena in science. Their experiment design pushed them to the edge of what they new and pulled them into the domain that true scientists’ work in. This program challenges the students to venture into the truly unknown domains of knowledge. It challenges them to redesign their experiments to hone in on a reliable and sound methodology and apparatus.
    Lastly, this claim of Sen. Coburn is an insult to the people that have donated thousands of their own money to the program and for the children to be able to perform the experiments. It ignores additional educational partnerships (such as between K-12 schools and Universities) that are formed as a result and that will benefit numerous students even after the experimentation is complete. Personally, I have happily donated thousands to be able to have my students perform a quality experiment. My community had another very generous donor to fund the cost for the community as well. How could this be ignored? I find it downright ignorant of Sen Coburn!

  13. Donna Burrus October 24, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    It is time to celebrate in Tennessee! For the first time in history, Tennessee is sending an experiment to the International Space Station. This amazing STEM program allowed over 300 students at our school to participate in real-world scientific design and research. I am so proud of all my students and their amazing work during this process. As a former International Science Fair Winner, this is far more than a science fair in space. It is a learning opportunity of a lifetime. Every student in this country should have the opportunity to “DO” science. SSEP DOES science!

  14. Amy McCormick October 27, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

    My students flew an experiment aboard the International Space Station on Mission 3. Not only can I proudly state that these students have raised tremendous public awareness about the disease ALS but each and every student involved on that project is now studying in a STEM related field at prestigious colleges across our nation, with several pursuing careers specifically within the medical field. SSEP and NCESSE provided my students the unique opportunity to perform real science at a national laboratory and present their findings to the scientific community at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Experiences like these are priceless. I cannot think of a better investment for our nation’s future than inspiring our children do great things.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.