NASA Interns Shouldn’t Have to Rely on GoFundMe

Stipends aren’t enough for those with extra financial obligations. That’s bad for science

TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA - APRIL 11: The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 2019 in Titusville, Florida. The rocket is carrying a communications satellite built by Lockheed Martin into orbit. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Financial aid is expensive, but so are rockets. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

India Jackson, a black PhD candidate at Georgia State University and a single mom received an offer for an internship at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she’ll research solar flares. She is the kind of person who loves math so much she has an equation tattooed across her chest. She’ll also only be able to attend—despite it being paid—thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. The stipend the program offered wasn’t enough to cover her expenses, the New York Times reports, which include plane fare for two to the city, a Boys & Girls Club membership for her daughter, and a rental car. So her cousin set up a GoFundMe to help, writing: “This is a lifelong dream of hers and a long time coming and I am very proud of her. Unfortunately, she is unable to attend.”

The GoFundMe campaign reached its goal within 24 hours, the Times reports. It’s heartwarming, yes. But it also highlights one small reason why physics is so incredibly white and male: It’s hard to get a career going if you have extra responsibilities, and no family money to fall back on. It’s a familiar problem in industries like journalism, but it’s worth noting that it persists within paid internships—even ones offered by prestigious institutions like NASA that are funded by the government.

The stipend that NASA offers varies by academic level, but Glassdoor puts the average at $16 an hour. That might be manageable for a young grad student who can take cost-saving measures like bunking up with roommates and biking to work. But for someone with a dependent, it’s much dicier. Parachuting into a city for a summer, especially with child, is more expensive per month than living there full-time: you need short-term furnished accommodations, maybe a rental car, and a way to get to the city in the first place. Those things are pricier than a long term lease (which you might need to keep paying for in your home city), and a regular car payment. And, as the Go Fund Me notes, NASA doesn’t give interns their stipends ahead of the program. On the surface, that makes sense. But it can leave folks who don’t have hundreds of dollars for deposits on hand in a bind.

The result is that fields like physics favor the well off. Being able to participate winds up being something of a luxury good. In a recent essay for Joyland on the enduring homogeny of the field, Joshua Roebke notes that one former particle physicist “once derided his subject as a sport for the rich.” It is not only unfair, it’s a bad way to ensure that the smartest minds are available to contribute.

Single moms—anyone who has financial obligations because of the reality of life—should have as much of an opportunity to do physics as anyone else. It’s hard to imagine a world in which GoFundMe’s are consistently filling in the gaps for all of the budding researchers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to float the bill of short-term relocation. The institutions that are investing heavily in the technologies and materials required to do this work should be reminded that sometimes, people need a little more investment too. If only politicians would throw around promises of financial aid for eligible NASA interns as blithely as they do promises of going to the Moon yet again.